Q: For Social Security retirement, I have heard both that you need 10 years of work and 35 years of work. Which is right?
A: In a way, both are correct but they actually involve two different topics. One topic is the amount of work required to be eligible for Social Security retirement. The other is how the amount of your retirement is calculated.
All Social Security retirement, survivors or disability benefits have a work requirement that varies with the specific program. You are insured on your record when you have enough work for a given benefit. The amount of work needed is measured by credits, also called quarters of coverage since you can earn a maximum of four quarters per year based on your gross wages and net self-employment earnings. In 2013, earnings of $1,160 provide one credit so earnings of at least $4,640 during the year provide all four.
For Social Security retirement, a person needs 40 credits, which is where the 10 years comes from. Becoming insured for retirement can take more than 10 years if you have low earnings in a year. With less than 40 credits you are not insured, 40 or more means you have enough work to receive a retirement benefit. Once insured status is established, your number of credits has nothing to do with how much the benefit amount will be.
Your entire career work history is important in determining your own Social Security retirement amount. To compute this amount, the best 35 years of your work earnings are used. While the highest earnings are often just before retirement, this is not always the case. If you do not have 35 years of work, zero years are used to reach 35 years. These best 35 years of earnings are weighted for inflation as part of computing your full retirement age (FRA) amount. Depending on your actual age when starting benefits, this FRA amount is adjusted up or down as needed to arrive at your retirement amount.
The online Social Security Statement states if you are insured for the different SSA programs and shows your earnings record history. See your Statement by creating a my Social Security account at http://www.socialsecurity.gov/myaccount/. A sample Statement is viewable at that link.