Work Credits. What are they? Do I need to have them?

SSDI stands for “Social Security Disability Insurance” (sometimes referred to as “SSD”). To qualify for disability benefits under SSDI, you must (1) have enough work credits* and (2) be found “disabled.”

What is a work credit?

When you work and pay taxes, you accumulate “work credits” with Social Security. If you earned $1,300 in 2017 (and reported and paid taxes on that amount), then you will have earned ONE work credit with Social Security. You can earn up to FOUR credits per year.

If you earned $5,200 in 2017, then you have earned your FOUR credits for that year. ($1,300 x 4 =$5,200.)

If you earned this much in 2016, you will have this many work credits for the year:

  • $1,260 = ONE work credit
  • $2,520 = TWO work credits
  • $3,780 = THREE work credits
  • $5,040 = FOUR work credits

It doesn’t matter if you earn the entire amount in January or earn a little bit every month, you will still have earned your credits for the year. For more information on how to earn work credits, see the Social Security publication called “How You Earn Credits.”

Why do I need work credits?

Social Security requires that you have earned a certain amount of work credits before you can qualify for some types of benefits.* The number of credits required depends on your age and what type of benefits you seek. The credits required for SSDI disability benefits are different than those required for retirement benefits. 

How many work credits do I need to qualify for SSDI?

The general rule is that you must have earned at least 20 credits in the 10 years before you became disabled. So, if you worked for 5 years and earned 4 credits per year, then you will have earned 20 credits.

However, like everything with Social Security, it isn’t always that simple.

If you become disabled before age 24:

You need to have six work credits (usually about a year and a half of work) in the three years before your disability.

However, it may not take a full year and a half of work to qualify. Remember, you will earn all four of your yearly credits when you have earned $5,040 in one year. It does not matter if it takes you two months or twelve months to earn that amount.

For example: What if you earned approximately $5,040 during the last few months of 2015? Then you earned all FOUR work credits for 2015.

THEN, what if you earned another $2,520 during the first couple months of 2016? You will have earned TWO work credits for 2016.

This fulfills your requirement for six work credits earned during the past three years (even though it only took a few months to earn those credits.)

Please note: the six credits mentioned here are only appropriate for this example. Your age and work credit requirements may vary.

If you become disabled from age 24 through 30:

work creditsThis is the most difficult age bracket to calculate. You may qualify if you have credit for working half of the time between age 21 and the time you become disabled. What does that mean? First, you need to know how many years have passed between your 21st birthday and the age at which you became disabled. Next, divide that number in half, then multiply by four to get the number of work credits required.

It isn’t quite as complicated as it sounds. Here is how you do it:

For example: If you become disabled at 29. The difference between age 21 and 29 (the age you became disabled) is eight years. Social Security says you need work credits for half of that time. So, you need credits for four years out of the last eight years (4 credits x 4 years = 16 work credits).

a) 29 – 21 = 8 (number of years between age 21 and age of disability)

b) 8 divided by 2 = 4 years that SSA wants you to have worked

c) 4 years x 4 credits per year = 16 credits required to qualify for disability

Does that mean I have to have worked 4 straight years?

Not necessarily. You could have:

  • Earned four credits per year for four years to get your 16 work credits. OR,
  • Earned two credits a year each year for the entire 8 years (If you earned approximately $2520 in earnings per year) to get your 16 work credits. OR
  • Earned four credits per year for part of the time, and only one, two, or three credits per year for part of that time. As long as you have earned a total of 16 work credits during the last eight years, you are covered!

Please note: the 16 credit requirement only applies to this example. Your age and credit requirements may vary.

If you are 31 or older:

Generally, if you become disabled after reaching age 31, you will need to have earned at least 20 credits in the 10 years immediately before you became disabled.

Social Security created a chart to show the number of credits needed based on the age you became disabled, although it does not cover all situations.

Disabled at Age Total Work Credits Needed Approx. Years Worked
31 through 42 20 5
44 22 5 ½
46 24 6
48 26 6 ½
50 28 7
52 30 7 ½
54 32 8
56 34 8 ½
58 36 9
60 38 9 ½
62 or older 40 10


*Please note: you do NOT need to have work credits for Supplemental Security Income (SSI). The SSI program is separate from the SSDI program that is discussed on this page. For SSI benefits, you must have limited resources and be found “disabled.”  For SSDI, you don’t need to have limited resources, but must have enough work credits and be found disabled.

Social Security has special rules for people who are blind.

For more details about how “disability” is determined, see The 5 Steps to a Disability Determination.


Originally published: December 28, 2016

Last updated: May 21, 2018 at 7:23 am

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