How to Qualify for Social Security

Three Methods:Reaching Retirement AgeCollecting Through a Family MemberAcquiring Benefits Because of Disability

Social security is without a doubt one of the most popular government programs in history. It’s a benefit conferred on those who’ve worked to earn it during their lives, paying into the program all along the way. But there are many aspects to social security. And at times the whole application process can be a bit perplexing. So you’ll have to dig in and do your homework to ensure that you make the right choices as to when—and how—you’ll apply for your benefits.

Method 1
Reaching Retirement Age

  1. Image titled Qualify for Social Security Step 1
    Learn when you can start collecting social security. The most common method of qualifying for social security benefits is reaching “retirement age”. But that term is a little misleading, because there isn’t one set age at which everyone starts receiving social security. Normally, you can start collecting anywhere from age 62 to age 70. If you’re a widow or widower, you can begin receiving Social Security benefits at age 60 (age 50 if you’re disabled).[1]
    • In order to qualify for social security benefits, you’ll need to have earned a certain number of “credits” prior to collecting.
    • Credits are based on the amount of money you earned in a year. (This has to be money that was subject to social security withholding.) The Social Security Administration (SSA) decides how much you need to earn to receive a credit, and the maximum number of credits you can get in one year is four.[2]
    • If you were born in 1929 or later, you need 40 credits (equivalent to 10 years of work) to qualify for social security benefits.[3]
  2. Image titled Qualify for Social Security Step 2
    Determine your financial requirements. You’ll have to assess just how quickly you’re going to need—or want—your social security benefits. For some people, life circumstances pretty much mandate taking social security as soon as possible. Others may have the luxury of waiting, but they’re just not sure if it’s worth it to hold off. In order to make that decision, you have to know what options are available to you.
  3. Image titled Qualify for Social Security Step 3
    Discover the benefits and drawbacks of taking social security at age 62. The amount of your monthly social security check will depend not only on how much you’ve paid into the system over the years, but also on when you start collecting. As indicated above, usually the earliest you can collect social security retirement benefits is age 62.
    • 62 isn’t considered “full retirement age”. If that's when you start collecting, you’re only going to receive around 70-80% (depending on your birth year) of what you’d get at full retirement age (now between 66 and 67,depending on when you were born.)[4] Check here for a “full retirement age” chart. That 70-80% figure is where you’ll stay, even when you finally reach full retirement age.[5]
    • Of course, the benefit of collecting at age 62 is that, even though you’re getting a smaller amount, you’ll be receiving it for a longer period of time (four to five years) than someone who waits to reach full retirement age.
  4. Image titled Qualify for Social Security Step 4
    Calculate the advantage of waiting to full retirement age—and beyond. If you have the ability to delay collecting your benefits, it could work to your advantage in the long-run.
    • By waiting until full retirement age you’ll get a bigger monthly check, and you’ll continue to get that amount going forward.
    • But if you wait until after full retirement age to collect, you’ll get a healthy 8% increase for each year you delay receiving benefits until age 70, which is when the law says you have to start collecting.[6]

Method 2
Collecting Through a Family Member

  1. Image titled Qualify for Social Security Step 5
    Look into receiving social security payments based on your spouse’s benefits. If your spouse has begun collecting social security, and you’re age 62 or older, you could qualify for “spousal retirement benefits".
    • If you’re eligible for your own retirement benefits, as well as spousal benefits, the SSA will normally pay your benefits first. However, if the benefits you’d be entitled to as a spouse turn out to be higher than your own retirement benefit, you’ll receive that higher benefit amount.[7]
    • As with collecting one’s own social security benefits (as seen above), if you claim spousal benefits before reaching full retirement age, the amount is reduced from what would be payable at full retirement.
    • A spouse doesn’t have to be eligible to collect social security on his or her own in order to be entitled to spousal benefits.[8]
    • You can also be entitled to full spousal benefits, no matter what age you are, if:
      • Your spouse is collecting social security, and
      • You care for your spouse’s dependent child who is under 16 years old, or is disabled.[9]
  2. Image titled Qualify for Social Security Step 6
    Consider taking a spousal benefit—and delaying your own. If you've reached full retirement age, and are eligible for a spousal benefit as well as your own retirement benefit, you might want to opt to take only the spousal benefit.
    • SSA will allow you to delay taking your own benefits. This means that you’ll still be getting a monthly check based on the spousal benefit, but your individual benefits will still be accruing.
    • This will result in your getting a higher monthly amount down the road, when you finally opt to start taking your own benefits.[10]
  3. Image titled Qualify for Social Security Step 7
    Receive payments based on a spouse’s benefits—even if you’re divorced. Under certain circumstances, you may be entitled to receive benefits based on your former spouse’s social security record. Some things to note are:
    • Your marriage must have lasted at least 10 years
    • You must be 62 years of age or older
    • You must be unmarried
    • If both you and your ex-spouse are at least 62 years old, and have been divorced for at least two years, you can collect social security even if your ex-spouse hasn’t filed for his or her benefits yet.
    • The amount a divorced spouse gets as a spousal benefit doesn’t affect the benefits of the ex-spouse or his or her current spouse.[11]
  4. Image titled Qualify for Social Security Step 8
    Collect on a parent’s social security record. When a parent has begun receiving social security benefits, his or her child (biological, adopted, or dependent stepchild) may be entitled to up to half the parent’s full benefit. This only applies to children under certain conditions:
    • The child must be unmarried
    • He or she must be younger than age 18 years of age. However the child can still qualify if he or she:
      • Is between 18 and 19 years old, and a full-time student (but only through twelfth grade), or
      • Is 18 years of age or older, and was disabled before the age of 22 years.[12]
  5. Image titled Qualify for Social Security Step 9
    Apply for benefits as a grandchild. If a grandparent adopts a grandchild, or if that child ‘s parents don’t provide for his or her support because they are both deceased or disabled, he or she may qualify for social security benefits based on a grandparent’s work record. Check with your local SSA office to see if the child qualifies for benefits, and if so—how much.[13]

Method 3
Acquiring Benefits Because of Disability

  1. Image titled Qualify for Social Security Step 10
    Go to your local SSA office to apply for social security disability. Your local office will take your application. If it’s determined that you’re not substantially employed (that is, making over a certain amount of money per month—which the agency sets), your application will be forwarded to Disability Determination Services (DDS), which is a state agency (in every state). DDS then processes your claim.[14]
  2. Image titled Qualify for Social Security Step 11
    Learn the guidelines for social security benefits based on disability. The DDS determines disability eligibility by looking at certain factors, and then weighing your impairment against the sum of those factors. The factors are:
    • The severity of the impairment
    • Whether the impairment matches one of the agency’s disability listings.
      • These listings are contained in a book that sets out the criteria for a particular impairment. Your condition is compared to these criteria.
      • If your condition isn’t contained in the “listing” book, you can contend that it’s equivalent to a listed condition and that, based on this, you should be entitled to social security disability benefits.[15]
    • Your ability or inability to do your past job
    • Your ability or inability to work in the future. In determining this, DDS will take into account such factors as your age, education, skills, and how limited you are by your impairment.[16]
  3. Image titled Qualify for Social Security Step 12
    Seek a medical-vocational (med-voc) allowance. If DDS determines that your particular condition doesn’t fall within its eligibility guidelines, you can request a med-voc allowance. This is actually how most people get approved for social security disability benefits. DDS takes certain steps to decide whether you’re entitled to a med-voc allowance.
    • First, it has your medical file reviewed by a medical specialist (such as a physician or psychiatrist) and, based on that, a residual functional capacity (RFC) assessment is prepared. This RFC assessment gauges whether you can do sedentary (sitting) work, light work, medium work, or heavy work. You can look here for more information on RFC’s.
    • Second, it evaluates whether or not you can return to your past employment. If you can, your claim will normally be denied. If you can’t, the process moves to the next step.
    • Third, DDS decides whether you can do “other work”. In order to make this assessment, DDS looks at medical-vocational guidelines, sometimes referred to as “grid rules”. These rules determine your disability eligibility status by taking into account your work history, age, education, and RFC level.[17]
  4. Image titled Qualify for Social Security Step 13
    Understand how the “grid rules” impact your ability to qualify for disability. The grid rules basically determine whether or not you’re disabled, and thus entitled—or not—to social security benefits.
    • If your particular medical condition and its resulting effects line up with the factors contained in a grid rule—and you’re over 50 years old—you could be approved for disability immediately. If you’re younger than that, the disability examiner may want to further evaluate whether your impairment actually prevents you from doing any other type of work.[18]
    • If the grid rules say you’re not disabled, you can still attempt to argue that the rules don’t apply to your particular situation.[19] You’ll probably need evidence to back this up, most likely from a doctor or vocational specialist.
    • If there doesn’t seem to be a grid rule that applies to your situation, DDS will look into any other type of less-demanding work you might be able to do. However, it would still have to be work that you’re physically capable of performing, given your impairment. And if it’s skilled work, it would have to be suitable for your particular skills set.[20]
  5. Image titled Qualify for Social Security Step 14
    File an appeal. If your disability claim is denied, you have the right to take an appeal. You can request an appeal online here. You can also download the necessary forms to submit to your local SSA office. Finally, you can call 1-800-772-1213, to request that forms be sent to you, or to schedule an interview with an SSA representative. There are four levels of appeal. If you're unsuccessful at the first level, then you move to the other levels, in sequence.
    • Level 1 - Reconsideration. Here your file will be completely reviewed by an examiner who didn’t participate in the original review that resulted in the denial of your claim.
    • Level 2 - A hearing by an administrative law judge (who played no role in your original denial). You may bring witnesses to the hearing to back up your claim, such as doctors and vocational experts.
    • Level 3 - Review by the SSA’s Appeals Council. The Council will review your case. However, if it decides that the original decision was correct, it can deny your appeal without a hearing.
    • Level 4 - Filing a lawsuit in Federal District Court. This takes your case out of the administrative area of the law, and into the legal system.[21]
  6. Image titled Qualify for Social Security Step 15
    Consider hiring an attorney. Although SSA offers a lot of information about the appeals process, you should think about hiring an attorney who has a strong background in these types of cases. This is particularly true once you get past the Level 1 - Reconsideration phase of the appeal, since now you'll have to appear before a judge. These attorneys work on a "contingent" fee basis. This means they get paid only if you win the case.[22]


  • To find out how to apply for social security retirement benefits, look at the SSA website at
  • Social security benefit amounts may increase in time, due to cost-of-living adjustments.[23]
  • If you start collecting benefits after age 62, but before your full retirement age, the percentage of full benefits that you’ll lose decreases with each year you get closer to full retirement age. You can find a chart of these percentages at
  • Another reason to delay collecting benefits until you reach full retirement age is that if you’re still working—between age 62 and full retirement age—while collecting social security, the SSA will deduct $1 in benefits for every $2 you earn above whatever the agency's annual earnings limit happens to be at that time.[24]
  • Depending on your financial circumstances, you may have to pay Federal and/or state taxes on your social security benefits.[25]
  • If you get a pension from an employer that didn’t participate in Social Security (like Federal civil service), SSA may reduce your social security benefits.[26]
  • Check to learn about the social security “credits” you need to qualify for disability.
  • For more information on grid rules, you can check
  • Note that the social security disability process is basically the same for both physical and mental impairments.[27]

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Categories: Social Security