Making Ends Meet

Questions & Answers

Question: I have been mostly supported by my spouse the last few years. After a heart attack, I am no longer able to work and trying to get on social security so I can eventually receive medicare. Social security told me that I have not worked enough quarters the last 15 years to qualify. What about all the years before that?


When you work and pay Social Security taxes, you earn “credits” toward Social Security benefits. Credits are the "building blocks" that the Social Security Administration uses to find out whether you have the minimum amount of covered work to qualify for each type of Social Security benefits. If you stop working before you have enough credits to qualify for benefits, your credits will stay on your record. If you return to work later on, you can add more credits so that you can qualify. No benefits can be paid if you do not have enough credits.

The number of credits you need to get retirement benefits depends on when you were born. If you were born in 1929 or later, you need 40 credits (10 years of work). Your benefit payment is based on how much you earned during your working career. Higher lifetime earnings result in higher benefits. If there were some years when you did not work or had low earnings, your benefit amount may be lower than if you had worked steadily. Your benefit payment also is affected by the age at which you decide to retire. If you retire at age 62 (the earliest possible retirement age for Social Security), your benefit will be lower than if you wait until later to retire. The full retirement age is 65 for people born before 1938.

You may be eligible for disability benefits under Social Security. The number of work credits needed for disability benefits depend on your age when you become disabled. Generally you need 40 credits, 20 of which were earned in the last 10 years ending with the year you become disabled. However, younger workers may qualify with fewer credits. The rules are as follows: 

  • Before age 24--You may qualify if you have 6 credits earned in the 3-year period ending when your disability starts.
  • Age 24 to 31--You may qualify if you have credit for working half the time between age 21 and the time you become disabled. For example, if you become disabled at age 27, you would need credit for 3 years of work (12 credits) out of the past 6 years (between ages 21 and 27).
  • Age 31 or older--In general, you need to have between 20 and 40 credits depending upon your age, the older you are, the more credits you need. Unless you are blind, you must have earned at least 20 of the credits in the 10 years immediately before you became disabled. The actual chart of required credits by age can be found online at the Social Security website.

NOTE: Each year, about three months before your birthday, you receive a Social Security Statement. It can be a valuable tool to help you plan a secure financial future. It provides you with a record of your earnings and gives estimates of what your Social Security benefits would be at different retirement ages. It also gives an estimate of the disability benefits you could receive if you become severely disabled before retirement, as well as estimates of the survivors benefits Social Security would  provide your spouse and eligible family members when you die. In addition to visiting Social Security online, you can call toll-free at 1-800-772-1213. Specific questions can be answered from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday, or information is provided by automated phone service 24 hours a day. If you are deaf or hard of hearing, call the TTY number, 1-800-325-0778.

The Social Security Administration also offers a program called Supplemental Security Income (SSI) which provides financial assistance for certain people who are disabled, blind, or at least 65 years old. It is more difficult to qualify for SSI and only those with limited income and resources can qualify for monthly checks in an amount based on the individual’s circumstances. In Arizona, people who get SSI are automatically eligible for free health benefits under the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS). Those with special needs may also qualify for housekeeping help, transportation or help with other problems. To apply for benefits, an application form may be requested from the Arizona Department of Economic Security Family Assistance Administration online, at any local DES office, or by phone at 602-542-4791.

January 30, 2007


On 8/25/08 said
You can find a definition of disability in the Adult Disability Starter Kit on the Social Security Website (

On 8/7/08
Erin said
Please define "became disabled", as used within the following statement "earned at least 20 of the credits in the 10 years immediately before you became disabled".