Can you get Social Security if you never paid taxes?

Quick Answer

In most cases, you need to pay Social Security taxes for at least 10 years to qualify for retirement benefits. However, there are some exceptions, such as for spouses and survivors. So it is possible to get Social Security benefits even if you never directly paid into the system yourself.

Do I Have to Pay Taxes to Get Social Security?

Paying Social Security taxes for at least 10 years is required to qualify for your own Social Security retirement benefits. The Social Security Administration (SSA) calculates your benefit amount based on your average monthly earnings over your 35 highest earning years.

So if you have not worked the required 10 years, you will not qualify for Social Security based on your own work record. The SSA will have no record of earnings to calculate your benefit on.

However, you may still be able to qualify for benefits through a spouse or former spouse. Their work history would be used to determine your potential benefits in that case.

Exceptions That Allow Benefits Without Paying Taxes

There are some exceptions where you can qualify for Social Security benefits without paying taxes for 10 years:

  • Spousal benefits – You can receive up to 50% of your spouse’s benefit amount if it is higher than your own benefit.
  • Survivor benefits – If your spouse dies, you may be eligible for their benefit instead of your own.
  • Government workers – Certain government employees pay Social Security taxes for fewer years but are still eligible.
  • Military service – Active duty military service counts toward the 10 years of work required.

So even if you have not paid into Social Security for a full 10 years, you may still meet the requirements through one of these exceptions.

Spousal Benefits for Social Security

Even if you have never worked or paid Social Security taxes yourself, you may be eligible for spousal benefits through your husband or wife’s work record.

To qualify for spousal benefits:

  • Your spouse must qualify for Social Security on their own record.
  • You must have been married for at least 1 year.
  • You must be at least 62 years old.
  • Your own Social Security benefit, if you have one, must be less than your spousal benefit.

If approved, you can receive up to 50% of the amount your spouse is entitled to receive at their full retirement age. So even with no work history of your own, you may qualify for spousal benefits based on your husband or wife’s taxes paid.

How Much are Spousal Benefits?

The maximum spousal benefit is 50% of your spouse’s primary insurance amount or PIA, which is the benefit they would receive at full retirement age.

For example:

  • Your spouse’s primary insurance amount (PIA): $2,000/month
  • 50% of their PIA: $1,000/month
  • Your maximum spousal benefit: $1,000/month

However, if your own benefit based on your work history is $900/month, your spousal benefit would only increase your payment by $100. You always receive your own benefit first, then a spousal boost up to 50% of their PIA.

Also, taking spousal benefits early at age 62 would further reduce the amounts. The maximum spousal benefit drops if claimed before your full retirement age.

Survivor Benefits if Spouse Dies

If your spouse dies, you may qualify for Social Security survivor benefits based on their work record. Survivor benefits can be paid to:

  • Widows and widowers
  • Divorced surviving spouses
  • Dependent children
  • Dependent parents (in some cases)

To receive survivor benefits, you typically must have been married for at least 9 months prior to your spouse’s death. At age 60 or older, you can receive 100% of the deceased worker’s basic Social Security benefit.

So even if you never worked or paid Social Security taxes, you can receive benefits if you are the surviving spouse, child, or dependent parent of a qualified deceased worker.

Amount of Survivor Benefits

The amount of your Social Security survivor benefits depends on your age and relationship to the deceased.

  • Widows and widowers age 60+ receive 100% of the deceased’s benefits.
  • Widows and widowers age 50-59 receive 71% to 99% of the deceased’s benefits.
  • Surviving spouses at any age can receive 75% of the deceased’s benefit for caring for an eligible child.
  • Children up to age 18 (19 if still in high school) receive 75% of the deceased’s benefits.
  • Dependent parents may receive 82% of the deceased’s benefits at age 62 or older.

So even with no taxes paid into the system yourself, survivor benefits can provide substantial income based on your deceased spouse’s work record. The SSA determines the exact payment you qualify for based on your specific situation.

Government Employees and Social Security

Some government employees, such as certain state and local workers, pay into alternative pension systems instead of Social Security.

However, their Social Security work credits may still count toward eligibility for benefits. For example:

  • Police officers and firefighters in many states have their own pension plans but often get Social Security credit.
  • Some teachers and education workers pay into state retirement systems and not Social Security.
  • Certain other state and municipal employees participate in public pension plans.

If these government workers earned Social Security credits for other employment, or through a spouse’s work history, they can combine credits to qualify for Social Security.

For example, a teacher may qualify for a government pension based on 17 years of teaching service. But if they earned Social Security credits through another job for 3 years, that would meet the 10 years required.

Windfall Elimination Provision

However, government retirees face certain benefit reductions under the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP). This can cut your Social Security payments by up to 50% of your pension from non-covered work.

For example, a teacher getting a $1500/month pension from years of teaching could see their Social Security reduced by $750 per month due to non-covered status. This offsets the “windfall” from getting both a pension and Social Security.

So government workers face WEP reductions but can still receive Social Security from a spouse or outside work. Their pensions may help them qualify despite limited FICA tax contributions.

Military Service Counts Toward Social Security

Active duty military service members pay into the Social Security system via payroll deductions. They earn credits toward the 40 required for retirement benefits.

Veterans who served between 1957 and 2001 earned special extra credits of $300 per quarter to help them qualify for Social Security.

Those extra credits can allow veterans to receive Social Security based on their service history alone. For example:

  • A veteran who served for 5 years may qualify for Social Security with just 2 years of additional work.
  • Someone who enlisted at 18 could potentially get Social Security retirement benefits immediately upon turning 62.

Even without 10 full years of FICA taxes paid, military service alone can help veterans meet Social Security eligibility requirements.

Social Security for Disabled Veterans

For veterans who are disabled, Social Security benefits may be available at younger ages:

  • Totally disabled vets can get Social Security disability as early as age 18.
  • For partial disability, benefits may be available as early as age 50.

So veterans who become disabled not only get VA disability compensation but also Social Security disability without needing 40 work credits.

Their military service combined with disability status makes them eligible for these essential benefits.

Getting Credit for Years You Don’t Have Taxes Paid

Even if you haven’t worked or paid Social Security taxes directly for 10 years, you may still get credit to qualify for benefits.

There are several ways to earn credits without technically paying taxes into the system:

  • Military service – Each year spent on active duty provides $300 in earnings credits.
  • Spousal benefits – You can qualify on a spouse’s work record instead of your own.
  • Public pensions – Government workers whose jobs weren’t covered by Social Security may combine credits.
  • Self-employment – SE tax goes toward Social Security even if income tax isn’t owed.

These types of work and earnings count for your 35-year work history that Social Security benefit amounts are based on.

Even just one or two years of credits from these non-taxed sources can help you meet the 10-year requirement with fewer FICA taxes actually paid in.

What if I Never Paid Enough Years of Payroll Taxes?

If you don’t have at least 10 years of payroll taxes paid in through FICA contributions, you will not qualify for Social Security retirement benefits on your own record.

However, there are still ways you may get Social Security if you fall short of the required years:

  • Spousal benefits – You can get up to 50% of your spouse’s benefit amount.
  • Survivor benefits – Available to widows and widowers starting at age 60.
  • Combining credits – Add credits from government work or military service.
  • Late-in-life work – Even one year of FICA taxes if you return to work later.

As long as you have some years of Social Security taxes paid through your own work or a spouse’s, you have options to meet the 10 years of credits needed.

A few years of spousal credits or late-in-life work can bridge the gap if you don’t have the full 10 years. It’s still possible to get Social Security in most cases.

What Percentage of FICA Tax Goes to Social Security?

FICA payroll taxes provide the primary funding for Social Security benefits. The FICA tax rate is currently:

  • 6.2% for Social Security
  • 1.45% for Medicare

So 6.2 cents out of every dollar of FICA taxes paid goes toward the Social Security system. Both employees and employers pay this, so the full 12.4% of someone’s earnings up to the annual limit is credited for their benefits.

FICA taxes apply for each year you have W-2 wages from covered employment up to Social Security’s earnings cap, which is $160,200 in 2023.

Self-employed individuals pay the full 12.4% Social Security tax rate on their net earnings as part of their SECA taxes. This ensures Social Security gets credit for all covered earnings.

Social Security Tax Rates Over the Years

The FICA tax rate for Social Security has increased over time as the program has expanded:

  • 1937 – Original Social Security tax was 1% each for employer/employee.
  • 1950 – Increased to 1.5% each.
  • 1960 – 2.75% each.
  • 1990 – 6.2% today, with additional 1.45% for Medicare.

While the rates have gradually risen, workers earn credits for all FICA taxes paid over their lifetime to qualify for benefits. Social Security receives the bulk of its funding through payroll tax contributions.

How Many Years of Taxes Do I Need to Collect Social Security?

You generally need about 10 years or 40 quarters of FICA taxes paid in to meet the minimum for Social Security benefits. The exact requirements depend on your age:

Age you earn credits Quarters of credit required
31 or younger 6
32 to 61 Credits for half the quarters from when you turned 21 until you reached 62
62 or older 40 credits (10 years of work)

No matter your age, you cannot receive credits for more than four quarters per year. Most people need about 10 years of work, or FICA taxes paid for 40 quarters, once they reach their 30s.

Military service and other non-covered employment may also count toward the 40 quarter requirement. But in general you need about 10 years of Social Security taxes to qualify.

How to Check Your Credits

You can check your Social Security Statement online via your my Social Security account to see:

  • Estimates of future benefits
  • Taxed earnings each year
  • Quarters of credits earned

This helps you determine if you have the minimum credits needed to qualify for Social Security. Getting at least 40 credits over your working career ensures you meet the 10-year minimum.


While most people need about 10 years of FICA taxes paid to receive Social Security, you can still potentially qualify without paying taxes yourself. Spousal and survivor benefits allow eligibility in many cases based on a husband, wife, or parent’s work record.

Military veterans and certain government workers can also combine credits from non-Social Security covered jobs to meet the 40 quarter requirement.

It is difficult but not necessarily impossible to get Social Security benefits without paying the taxes yourself for at least 10 years in most situations. Dependents, spouses, and those with split work histories do have options to qualify.

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