The variety of Social Security questions I field from advisors inevitably means I peer into complicated regulations that are replete with jargon.

A recent situation—a married couple who became U.S. citizens late in life—meant reviewing the rules governing benefits for permanent legal residents (of which there are about 13 million) and naturalized citizens (about 25 million).

The two individuals had not yet earned the full 40 “quarters of coverage” the Social Security Administration requires for retirement, survivors or disability benefits. The advisor’s question seemed simple: “If the husband were to earn his final quarters to reach 40, can his wife claim spousal benefits against his record?”

Finding the answer was a good review of the Social Security rules for a large and growing part of the population—and, perhaps, your practice.

To start: who qualifies for Social Security benefits? Eligibility for Social Security benefits depends on whether someone has earned the minimum number of “quarters of coverage” (QCs) or “credits” during their years working in a job where they paid Social Security taxes.

In 2024, someone receives one credit for each $1,730 of earnings, up to a maximum of four credits per year. Once someone has earned 40 credits, they are “fully insured” with the Social Security system. Credits are accrued between ages 21 and 62 or until someone dies or becomes disabled.

It's important to note that being fully insured is generally required to receive Social Security benefits, but the rules for spousal, dependent or disability benefits may have additional conditions.  

Do you have to be a U.S. citizen to qualify for Social Security? Citizenship is not required. Permanent legal residents can qualify for Social Security benefits provided they meet the eligibility guidelines.    

What about naturalized citizens or legal residents who have worked abroad? Many people today may work for periods abroad. The United States has “totalization agreements” with other countries that enable workers to combine work credits from those countries and the U.S. for Social Security eligibility.  

So, what was the answer to the question about spousal benefits? Unfortunately, due to several factors, the wife would not qualify for spousal benefits at this time. She may be able to claim spousal benefits in the future if her husband were to become fully insured or if the couple’s home country has a totalization agreement with the U.S.

My advice was to get the couple’s entire work history, then make an appointment with the SSA to review it in detail and get more personalized insight into their potential benefits.

The nuances of insurance credits and entitlements can be confounding. That’s why it’s best to seek the agency’s help evaluating a situation like this one to maximize the benefits a worker, a spouse and dependents can receive.   

Alyson Dorosky, CSSCS, is a Social Security support expert at LifeYield. She works with advisors and their clients to address their thorniest Social Security issues.