Ask the Expert: Earning your benefits
I'm 56 years old, currently unemployed and collecting unemployment benefits. Will my present unemployment affect my Social Security benefit when they look back? How many years do they go back to figure out what my monthly benefit will be?
Your monthly Social Security benefit isn't chronologically determined. It's based on the 35 years of your highest earnings, no matter when those years occurred in your work history.
A person only has to work for 10 years (i.e., 40 quarters) to qualify for a Social Security benefit, but the dollar amount of that benefit is always based on 35 years of earnings. In other words, if you only worked for 10 years, the actuarial calculation that determines your benefit will include 25 years of zeros. This means that a very high earner who only worked for 10 years receives a smaller Social Security benefit than a person who earned less but worked for 35 years. "Even if you earned $1 million a year for those 10 years, the formula that determines your benefit will include 25 years of zeros," explains Linda Lauria, a Social Security Administration spokeswoman.
The agency's estimate of your future retirement benefit is based on its assumptions about how many years you'll work and how much you'll earn. You can use the Social Security Retirement Estimate calculator to find out how your benefit would change if you worked fewer years, or earned less than you do now. The calculator is linked to your actual earnings record. You can type in your own assumptions, increasing or reducing the number of future work years at hypothetical salaries, to see how each scenario would affect your ultimate benefit.
The bottom line If you already have 35 years of earnings, your current unemployment may have very little effect on your future Social Security benefit.
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