When a worker pays into the Social Security system over the course of their life, they accumulate credits. A worker can receive up to four credits a year. For example, in 2020, workers will receive one credit for every $1,410 they earn. When your spouse has earned $5,640, they have earned their four credits for the year.
In order to claim retirement, a worker needs 40 credits. However, the number of credits required to provide survivor benefits for the worker’s family depends on the worker’s age when they die. This means that the younger a person is when they pass away, the fewer credits they will need for their family members receive survivor benefits.
When someone retires, or when they die, the amount of their benefit is calculated based on their earnings over their lifetime. This is the amount that survivors will receive all or part of. To calculate their benefit, Social Security adds up the worker’s income during the years they made the most money. They then index that total against average wages across the country during those years. This results in the worker’s “Average Indexed Monthly Earnings” (AIME). The Social Security Administration only includes the portion of a worker’s income up to the maximum taxable earnings limit. This is the amount that is taxed for Social Security—in 2020, that’s $137,700. If your spouse earned more than that, the higher earnings will not be included in the calculation because these monies were not taxed by Social Security.