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Counting Social Security Credits - Earning Benefits Needs 40 Quarters

Aug 11, 2010

"I am a 61-year-old woman who spent most of my working career as a clerk in a superior court. That job was not covered by Social Security. But I have occasionally worked at jobs where I did pay into Social Security -- and I have 38 points. Will I be able to get a reduced Social Security benefit," a reader asks.

Answer: No. The law says you must have at least 40 credits (they're called "credits" or "quarters of coverage," not "points") to be eligible for Social Security retirement benefits. With 38 credits, you don't get a reduced benefit. You get nothing!

But all you need are two more credits to get you to the magic number of 40. So you should take a job, any job, to earn the couple of Social Security credits you need. You get one credit for each $1,120 you earn. In other words, once you make $2,240, you'll have the two credits you need to put you over the 40-credit threshold.

With just barely the minimum 40 credits, you won't qualify for very much money. You might expect to get about $100 per month from Social Security. But $100 is better than nothing -- which is what you're due now with your 38 credits.

I suggest you start practicing the phrase, "Do you want fries with that?" Or maybe, "Welcome to Wal-Mart!" Remember: Almost any job will get you the credits you need for Social Security.

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More Questions and Answers below:

Q: I still can't understand why I'm not allowed to draw benefits on my husband's record when I turn 62 and then switch to full benefits on my own Social Security record at 66. When I asked someone at my Social Security office, all they said was: "Only if your husband is dead!" Is this true?

A: Well, that wasn't the most tactful way of putting it, but yes, it is true -- as long as you're under your "full retirement age." The law says if you are under age 66 when you sign up for Social Security, you must apply for any and all benefits for which you might be eligible. So if you wanted to apply for Social Security at age 62, you will get reduced retirement benefits on your record. And then you would also have to apply for reduced spousal benefits on your husband's Social Security account. If eligible, your own benefit would be supplemented up to about one-third of his benefit.

But that rule about filing for all benefits you might be due does not apply to widows and widowers. They have the option of taking reduced benefits on one record before age 66 and then switching to full benefits on the other record when they reach that full retirement age.

Also, please note that the "apply for all benefits" policy is only in effect before age 66. For example, you could wait until age 66 and apply for spousal benefits at that point. Then at age 70, you could switch to full retirement benefits on your record. And those benefits would come with a 32 percent "delayed retirement bonus."

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Q: My husband died when he was 47. I have two children getting Social Security survivor benefits on his record. I've also received widow's benefits on and off since my husband died, depending on if I'm working or not.

I have three questions. One: I read that I lose Social Security when the kids turn 16. Will they lose benefits then, too?

Two: Because I've received some Social Security benefits already (I'm in my 50s), am I locked into the reduced widow's benefit option when I turn 62?

Three: When I reach retirement age, will I get widow's benefits or my own Social Security?


Answers: Here are three answers to your three questions.

One: Each child will continue to receive benefits until he or she turns 18. Only the mother loses benefits when the youngest reaches 16.

Two: No, you're not locked into anything. The fact that you received widow's benefits (they're actually called "mother's" benefits) before reaching retirement age has no impact on any other Social Security benefits you might be due later in life.

Three: Widows of retirement age have the option of taking early benefits on one record and then later switching to higher benefits on another record. For example, you could take reduced retirement benefits on your record at age 62 and then switch to full widow's benefits at age 66. Or another option: You could take widow's benefits at 62 or 66 (or anywhere in between) and then switch to your own retirement at age 70, which would come with a "delayed retirement bonus" of an extra 32 percent added to your retirement benefit. You'll have to go over your options with someone at your local Social Security office.

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Q. I am an 87-year-old widow getting my husband's Social Security. When I die, will my son (he's 62 and on Social Security himself) be able to get the $255 death benefit?

A: No. That miserly Social Security death benefit is only payable if you are getting your own Social Security retirement benefit. And even then, it would be paid only to a surviving spouse or to children under age 19.


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