Social Security: Who's Eligible?

Social Security pays benefits not only to people retired from the work force, but also their surviving dependents following the person's death and persons who become disabled and cannot work. Knowing the eligibility requirements can help you plan for retirement or in case accident, illness, or death occurs. 

You must have worked at least 10 years to qualify for Social Security retirement benefits. A wife who has never held a job or worked for only a few years is eligible for benefits from her husband's or possibly ex-husband's earnings record.

You may begin receiving retirement benefits as early as age 62, but waiting until "full" retirement age can mean increased benefits. That age is 65 for people born before 1938. Full retirement age for persons born in 1938 or later gradually increases until persons born in 1960 or later must reach age 67.

Persons who work beyond retirement age and delay receiving Social Security receive a special credit as well as increased benefits because of more years worked. Conversely, salary limitations exist for persons under age 70 who continue to work plus receive retirement benefits. Exceeding the limitations can decrease your benefits. Income from pensions, annuities, investments, interest, and veterans or other government benefits is not included in the limitation.

Social Security's disability benefits help a person whose physical or mental impairment will prevent him or her from working for at least a year or will lead to that person's death. The disabled person begins receiving benefits in the sixth month of the disability. After two years, the person is eligible for Medicare, and upon age 65 the retirement benefits begin.

If a retired or disabled person is receiving Social Security benefits, his or her spouse and children may also be eligible for up to 50 percent of the worker's benefit rate. The actual amount depends upon the ages and number of family members.

Survivor benefits include a one-time payment of $255 plus a percentage of the deceased worker's basic benefit. Eligible spouses are those who are at least 60 years old or 50 years old and disabled. A surviving spouse of any age with a child under age 16 or a disabled child is eligible, as are dependent children under age 18 (19 if still in high school) and dependent parents who relied on the deceased for half of their support. Ex-spouses are also eligible for benefits under certain conditions.