Becoming Eligible for Social Security Benefits by Being Currently Insured

Some survivors benefits are available to the dependents of those who died without being fully insured by Social Security.

By , J.D. · University of Baltimore School of Law
Updated by Bethany K. Laurence, Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

To be entitled to Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) or retirement benefits, or for your spouse and children to be eligible for dependents and survivors benefits, you must be insured according to the Social Security Administration's (SSA's) guidelines. To be insured, you must have earned enough work credits from jobs where you paid Social Security taxes (FICA taxes or self-employment taxes).

Work credits are accrued based on the amount of wages or self-employment income reported on your record annually. How much you need to earn for one work credit changes each year (in 2024, it's $1,730 per credit). You can earn up to four work credits per year, regardless of how high your earnings are. (Learn more about how you earn Social Security work credits.)

Which benefits are available to you and your dependents depends on whether Social Security considers you "fully insured" or "currently insured."

How Social Security Defines Currently Insured vs. Fully Insured

Whether you qualify as "fully" or "currently" insured depends on how many work credits you've earned. When you're "fully insured," you and your family are entitled to a broader range of Social Security benefits than someone who's only "currently insured."

Fully Insured for Social Security

To be fully insured for retirement or disability benefits, you need between 6 and 40 work credits, depending on your age. And you must have earned at least 1 work credit for each year between the year you turned 21 and the year you turn 62. (20 C.F.R. § 404.110(b).) Note that to earn 40 credits, you generally must have worked enough to earn the maximum of 4 credits a year for the past 10 years.

Whether or not you're insured for disability benefits also depends on how old you are when you become disabled (more on this below). But you can't get disability unless you're fully insured.

Currently Insured for Social Security

You need only be currently insured for some benefits. For example, if you're currently insured and you have end-stage renal disease (ESRD), you can get Medicare Part A for free.

To qualify as "currently insured," you must have earned at least 6 work credits during the 13-quarter period ending with the quarter you become disabled (or pass away). That's about three years.

Being currently insured doesn't entitle you to disability or retirement benefits for yourself, but limited benefits are available to your survivors if you had children. These survivor benefits are discussed below.

Are You Insured for Social Security Disability Benefits?

You can only receive SSDI benefits if you're "insured for disability benefits." Social Security considers you "insured for disability benefits" if:

  • You're fully insured (see above), and
  • ONE of the following is true:
    • You've earned at least 20 work credits in the last 40 quarters (meaning you've worked at least 5 of the last 10 years).
    • You're younger than 31, and you've earned at least 2 work credits a year for each year since you turned 21.
    • You had a period of disability before you turned 31, and you've earned work credits in at least half the calendar quarters since you turned 21 (not counting your period of disability).
    • You're legally blind.

Social Security Benefits for "Fully Insured" vs. "Currently Insured" Workers

The survivors of fully insured workers are entitled to more benefits than the survivors of currently insured workers.

Fully Insured Benefits

The following Social Security benefits are available to fully insured workers (or their dependents):

  • retirement benefits for workers 62 or older (or widow(er)s benefits for widow(er)s aged 60 or older)
  • disability benefits
  • disabled widow(er)s benefits for widow(er)s between the ages of 50 and 60
  • mother's or father's benefits for surviving spouses (or ex-spouses) who care for a diseased worker's biological or adopted child if the child is
    • under the age of 16 (or disabled), and
    • entitled to benefits based on the deceased worker's earnings record
  • dependent parents benefits for parents (aged 62 or older) of a deceased fully insured worker
  • spousal benefits for spouses aged 62 or older
  • spousal benefits for spouses caring for a disabled worker's biological or adopted child if the child is:
    • under the age of 16 or disabled, and
    • that child is entitled to benefits based on the disabled worker's earnings record
  • children's benefits if the child is unmarried and:
    • under the age of 18
    • under the age of 19 and a full-time elementary or high school student, or
    • age 18 or older if disabled before the age of 22.

Currently Insured Benefits

The following benefits are the only benefits available to the survivors of workers who were only currently insured:

  • mother's or father's benefits, if the surviving spouse is caring for the diseased worker's biological or adopted child, and if the child is entitled to benefits based on the deceased worker's earnings record and is either:
    • under the age of 16, or
    • disabled
  • children's benefits for the dependent, unmarried child of a deceased worker if the child is:
    • under the age of 18
    • under the age of 19 and a full-time elementary or secondary school student, or
    • aged 18 or older but became disabled before the age of 22.

The mother's or father's benefits might also be available to a surviving ex-spouse.

Exactly When a Person Is Currently Insured

You need to understand how Social Security divides the year into quarters to understand exactly when someone becomes "currently insured." Social Security quarters are as follows:

  • First Quarter: January, February, March
  • Second Quarter: April, May, June
  • Third Quarter: July, August, September
  • Fourth Quarter: October, November, and December

To determine whether someone was currently insured at the time of death, subtract three years from the year the person died. The 13-quarter period begins with the quarter three years ago corresponding to the person's death. So, if someone died in the second quarter of 2024, the 13-quarter period begins with the start of the second quarter of 2021.

And remember, to be currently insured, a worker must have earned at least six work credits during that 13-quarter period. Consider the following examples.

Consider Contacting an Attorney

Determining whether you or your family members are eligible for Social Security benefits can be a complicated process. If you're unsure about your eligibility for benefits, speaking to an attorney with experience in Social Security matters can be helpful.

Learn more about finding and working with a Social Security attorney.

Updated January 17, 2024

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