Most American workers look forward to receiving a monthly Social Security check to get ahead financially in retirement.
Some plan on using that check to supplement their savings, while others count on it to make ends meet. But before you start factoring Social Security into your retirement budget, you need to know if you qualify to receive it.
Here are nine categories of American citizens who don't qualify for Social Security payments in retirement.
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Americans who never worked
Only those who contribute to the Social Security system while working qualify to receive Social Security payments in retirement.
If you didn’t work between the start of adulthood and retirement age, you didn’t contribute any portion of your paychecks to the Social Security tax. That means you won’t get any of that money back in a monthly stipend once you retire.
This rule doesn’t apply to non-working spouses of working adults. For instance, if you were a stay-at-home parent while your spouse worked and contributed to the Social Security fund, you likely qualify for spousal Social Security benefits based on your partner’s income.
Some ex-spouses who were married for fewer than 10 years
Many ex-spouses still qualify to receive at least some of the spousal benefit they were entitled to based on their former spouse’s working income.
However, if you were married to someone who qualifies for Social Security but divorced before you’d been married for a decade, you likely won’t qualify for the spousal benefit.
There are some exceptions to this rule, though, including ex-spouses who may receive spousal benefits from their former partners if they're taking care of a child they had together.
Americans who worked too few years to earn 40 work credits
To receive Social Security benefits, you must have earned a certain number of “work credits” throughout your working life. Typically, you’ll earn one credit for every financial quarter you work, which means you can earn up to four credits a year.
To earn your credits in 2023, you must make at least $1,640 per quarter, but the minimum earnings requirement changes from year to year.
Since you can earn four credits a year, most Americans must work for at least 10 years to be eligible to receive Social Security benefits in retirement.
Note that you don’t have to work full-time or even part-time to earn a credit. You must meet the minimum earning threshold, not work a certain number of hours throughout the year.
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Immigrants who arrived in America after age 50
Depending on when they immigrated to the United States, some immigrants may not earn enough work credits to qualify for Social Security.
For instance, immigrants who arrive at age 55 usually aren’t eligible for retirement benefits at age 62 because they haven’t had enough time to earn the required 40 work credits.
However, governments in 30 countries have totalization agreements with the United States government, meaning the two governments coordinate retirement benefits for immigrants who move to the United States and vice versa.
Don’t assume that you won't receive retirement benefits because you immigrated after a certain age. Instead, talk to your lawyer and financial advisor about which benefits you can expect, if any.
Americans who immigrate to one of nine restricted countries
Due to government sanctions and other restrictions on foreign governments, Americans who retire to one of 10 foreign countries can’t receive monthly Social Security payments.
Exceptions are available to qualifying immigrants in seven of the nine countries, including Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Azerbaijan. Exceptions cannot be made for American immigrants to North Korea or Cuba.
Teachers in certain states and school districts
Per the original Social Security Act, government workers wouldn’t receive Social Security benefits because they retired with government-sponsored pension plans instead.
However, as pension plans became less common and less comprehensive over time, the act was eventually amended. It’s now up to individual states to opt in or out of the Social Security program for public servants, including teachers.
Most states — 33 of them — have opted into the Social Security system so teachers can still receive Social Security retirement benefits.
But, 13 states and Washington, D.C., have opted out of the system, and five other states leave Social Security benefit eligibility up to individual school districts.
The actual practice and implementation of each state’s or district’s Social Security policy can get complicated fairly quickly. In Missouri, for instance, full-time teachers don’t qualify for Social Security benefits, but part-time teachers do.
If you’re a teacher, look into your state’s Social Security laws to ensure you aren’t paying into a system that won’t pay you benefits post-retirement.
Americans who started working for the federal government before 1984
Most individuals hired by the federal government in or before 1983 were part of the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS), a pension plan for federal workers that serves as an alternative to Social Security.
Now, federal employees receive their retirement through the Federal Employees Retirement System. The new system includes Social Security retirement benefits and applies to federal employees hired from 1987 onwards.
Workers who participated in the CSRS are still eligible for Medicare.
Railroad workers who get their retirement through the Railroad Retirement Board
If you worked in the railroad industry for 10 years before 1995 or for five years after 1995, you likely qualify to receive retirement benefits through the Railroad Retirement Board (RRB).
This federal agency’s benefits plan replaces Social Security benefits. However, your RRB retirement credits will carry over into Social Security if you worked for fewer than 10 or five years (depending on your hiring date).
Americans who don’t live through age 62
American workers who have paid into the Social Security system for decades can’t apply to start receiving their benefits until age 62 (though they can delay receiving benefits until age 70).
As a result, those who die before age 62 won’t see any of that money, though their spouse and dependents may be entitled to receive survivor benefits.
However, those diagnosed with a terminal condition can likely apply for Social Security Disability Insurance, which can support Americans unable to work (including those who haven’t reached their 62nd birthday).
Fortunately, only around 3.5% of American citizens don’t qualify for Social Security, so the odds are that you’ll receive a monthly check once you retire.
Still, it can help relieve some financial stress to know for sure one way or another, so talk to your retirement planner or tax professional to understand what retirement benefits you can expect.
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