What SSD Claimants Must Know About Social Security Work Credits

Disability Benefits

Important: We updated this article in December 2022 with current SSA policy information. Social Security work credits can be confusing, especially if you’ve been out of work or dependent on a partner’s income. But if you apply for Social Security disability (SSD) benefits, it’s important to know how to check those credits. The number of Social Security work credits you’ll need depends on your age and which benefits you seek. You can qualify for any Social Security Administration (SSA) benefit with 40 work credits, provided you meet all other requirements. Don’t have 40 work credits yet, aren’t sure how to check or have other questions? The information below should help you.

What are Social Security Work Credits?

The SSA views work credits as “building blocks” that help determine whether you qualify for certain benefits. Basically, the SSA looks to see if you worked the minimum number of years and paid Social Security payroll taxes. When you meet both requirements, you earn up to a maximum of four “work credits” every year.

Before 1978, employers reported earnings to the SSA at the end of each quarter (one three-month period). Back then, credits were called “quarters of coverage” (or QCs, for short). If you earned at least $50 in a three-month calendar quarter, the SSA counted that as one QC. After 1978, employers started reporting QCs at the end of every year instead of quarterly.

Today, you can earn up to four Social Security work credits per calendar year. The SSA uses your wage income to track how many credits you earn. However, you cannot earn more than four credits per year, regardless of your annual work wages. In 2023, you get one Medicare or Social Security work credit for every $1,470 you earn in taxed wages. However, not every employer withholds the FICA taxes from your paychecks required to earn these credits.

How Can I Tell If I’m Earning Credits Through My Current or Most Recent Job?

If you work in a job where you don’t pay FICA taxes, then you cannot earn Social Security work credits. Unfortunately, that also means you likely can’t qualify for SSD or regular Social Security benefits once you stop working. Here’s a good way to check:

  1. Do you rely on tips for part of your income? If yes, you likely don’t pay Social Security payroll taxes required to earn each work credit. If no, move on to question #2.
  2. Does your job provide a pension-based retirement plan? If yes, you almost certainly don’t pay FICA taxes required to earn these credits. Some examples of jobs where this may apply includes teachers, firefighters, bus drivers or airline pilots. If no, move on to question #3.
  3. Are you self-employed? If yes, you can still get a work credit for every $1,470 in wages you earn, but it’s more complicated. Other people pay 6.2% in Social Security and 1.45% in Medicare taxes out of every paycheck, which their employers match equally. Self-employed people earning up to $160,200 annually pay 12.4% in Social Security and 2.9% in Medicare taxes instead. Read more about how self-employed workers earn Social Security credits.

What if I Stopped Working Before I Had Enough Social Security Work Credits to Qualify for Benefits?

The SSA uses your Social Security Number (SSN) to track your total credits earned to date through working. Luckily, these credits never expire. If you’re unemployed for a while and then start working again, you may earn the credits you need to qualify for SSD benefits. Throughout your lifetime, you’ll likely earn more work credits than the minimum amount you need to get disability payments. However, these extra credits have no effect on your benefit amount or program eligibility. Instead, the SSA uses your average monthly earnings over your entire work history to determine your monthly benefit amount. In most cases, SSD benefits pay about 40% of your average monthly paycheck from your working years, adjusted for current inflation.

How Can I Check My Work Credits Before I Apply for Social Security Disability Benefits?

Here’s a fast, easy way to know if you have enough work credits to qualify for Social Security disability:

  • You worked at least 5 in the last 10 years full-time in jobs where you paid FICA taxes, AND
  • If you stopped working for health reasons, you quit your job less than 60 months ago, AND
  • You didn’t already apply for or start receiving early retirement or regular Social Security benefits.

What if you know you have enough work credits, but haven’t held a job for more than five years? If you’re 31 or older, you need 20 work credits earned within the past decade to qualify for SSD. The SSA will not make any exceptions for disability applicants who cannot pass the recent work requirement test. This includes people who stop working to raise children, care for sick relatives or work jobs without paying FICA taxes.

Still not sure or can’t remember how many credits you currently have? Call 1-800-772-1213 Monday through Friday during regular business hours to speak with a Social Security agent.

Number of Social Security Credits Required for Specific Benefit Programs

Depending on which benefits you apply for, the number of Social Security work credits you’ll need to qualify can vary. See how the SSA determines the number of work credits needed for each type of benefit below.

  1. Retirement benefits. The minimum number of Social Security work credits needed to qualify for retirement benefits depends on your birth date. Born after 1929? You’ll need 40 credits, which translates to working full-time for 10 years.
  2. Disability benefits. The minimum number of credits you need to qualify for SSD depends on your age when your condition starts. If you apply after your 31st birthday, you need 40 work credits to qualify for SSD benefits. Additionally, you need 20 credits earned within the last decade, and ending the same year your condition prevents you from working. This is called the 20/40 rule, and you can’t get SSD benefits without passing a “recent work” test.

However, there are some exceptions. Here are the basic rules:

  • If you’re disabled at age 24 or younger — You need six credits earned during the three-year period ending when your disability began to qualify for SSD benefits.
  • For SSD applicants aged 24-31 — You can qualify for SSD benefits working half the years between your 21st birthday and the year you became disabled. If you develop thyroid cancer at 29, for example, four years of full-time work gives you enough credits to qualify.
  • For SSD applicants aged 31 and older — Unless you’re blind, the SSA uses a specific formula to determine your work credit requirements. This involves using your birth date and age when your disabling condition began. Check out this handy SSA chart for more details.

Having a lawyer file your SSD claim makes you 3x more likely to get benefits approved right away. Most people who apply with legal assistance through our website get $12,000+ in lump-sum backpay as well as monthly SSD benefits. Every Social Security attorney works on contingency, so you pay $0 for legal assistance if your claim’s not approved. And if you do win benefits, you’ll only pay a small, one-time fee.

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Lori Polemenakos is Director of Consumer Content and SEO strategist for LeadingResponse, a legal marketing company. An award-winning journalist, writer and editor based in Dallas, Texas, she's produced articles for major brands such as Match.com, Yahoo!, MSN, AOL, Xfinity, Mail.com, and edited several published books. Since 2016, she's published hundreds of articles about Social Security disability, workers' compensation, veterans' benefits, personal injury, mass tort, auto accident claims, bankruptcy, employment law and other related legal issues.