In order to be entitled to Social Security retirement or disability benefits, or for your spouse and children to be eligible for dependents and survivors benefits, you must be insured according to Social Security Administration's (SSA) guidelines. To be insured, you must have earned a certain number of work credits from working at jobs where you paid Social Security taxes.
Work credits are accrued based on the amount of wages or self-employment income that is reported on your record annually. The dollar amount you need to earn for one credit usually changes each year. For example, in 2023, you needed to earn $1,640 in earnings to get one credit. The most you can get for any one year is four credits, regardless of how high your earnings are.
A person can be either "fully" or "currently" insured depending on how many credits they've acquired. A person who is fully insured is entitled to a wider range of Social Security benefits than someone who is "currently insured."
To be "fully insured," you must have earned 40 credits at retirement age, which would generally mean that you've worked enough to earn the maximum of four credits a year for the past ten years. Whether someone is insured for disability benefits depends on the age a person becomes disabled (more on this below).
A person is only currently insured if they've earned six (or more) credits during the 13-quarter period ending with the quarter the person died or became disabled (this period is about three years). Although individuals who are not currently insured cannot get disability or retirement benefits for themselves, there are limited benefits available to their survivors. These survivor benefits are discussed below.
Workers who aren't fully insured can receive disability benefits if they are "insured for disability benefits." If a worker becomes disabled before full retirement age and has at least one credit for each year since age 21, the SSA considers the person to be "insured for disability benefits." Also, the individual must have earned 20 credits during the last 40 quarters, ending with the quarter the person became disabled (this generally means the person must have worked five out of the last ten years).
Individuals who are insured for disability benefits are entitled to Social Security disability benefits, and their spouses and children are entitled to spousal and children's benefits. However, after their death, their dependents are eligible for survivors benefits only if the disabled individual was also currently insured.
Most disability recipients, but not all, are currently insured. For disability recipients, currently insured status requires that the disabled person earned at least six credits during the 13-quarter period ending with the quarter the person became disabled (about three years). The survivors of currently insured disability recipients can receive benefits as discussed below.
Fully insured workers are entitled to more benefits than currently insured workers.
The following are available to fully insured workers (or their survivors) only:
The following are available to the survivors of currently insured workers:
The surviving spouse benefits may also be available to a surviving former spouse.
To understand exactly when someone becomes currently insured, it's helpful to know how the SSA divides the year into quarters:
To determine whether someone is currently insured, subtract three years from the year the person died. The 13-quarter period begins with the first quarter (three years ago) that corresponds to the quarter the person died. Here is an example.
Joe died on February 1, 2023, which is part of the first quarter of 2023. The date three years prior to this is February 1, 2020 (the first quarter of 2020). So the 13-quarter period begins with the first quarter of 2020 and ends with the following thirteenth quarter, which begins in January 2023. Therefore, if Joe earned at least six credits in the time period between January 1, 2020, and January 1, 2023, he was "currently" insured. Although he wasn't eligible for disability benefits when he died, his "currently insured" status entitled his wife and children to some survivors benefits.
Marianne died on June 2, 2023, which is in the second quarter of 2023. The date three years prior to this is June 2, 2020 (also the second quarter). The thirteenth quarter began on April 1, 2023; therefore Marianne had to have earned at least six credits between April 1, 2020 and April 1, 2023. Unfortunately, Marianne had only worked five quarters by the beginning of the second quarter when she died; therefore, she was not "currently" insured.
It can be a complicated process to determine whether or not you or your family is eligible for benefits. If you're unsure, it can be helpful to speak to an attorney with experience in Social Security matters.