Know What You're Owed

As the number of out-of-work Americans continues to rise, everyone should know the basics about unemployment insurance.

Unemployment benefits are administered by each state, so there's some variation across the country, but there are a few consistent requirements to determine eligibility:

1) Did your employer pay into the unemployment fund on your behalf?

The vast majority of employers do this, so you're probably covered here -- but churches and other religious organizations, for example, do not.

2) Did you earn enough money when you were working?

If you were out of work for a year, then started a job, but lost it a short time later, you probably didn't earn enough money in what's called your "base period." The state will look at how much you earned during some period within the last 12 months to determine if -- and how much -- you're eligible to receive in unemployment benefits. (The base period varies by state.)

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3) Did you lose your job through no fault of your own?

This is key. If you quit your job because you didn't like the hours thinking you could simply sit back and collect unemployment, you're out of luck. Similarly, if you were terminated after repeated warnings about your poor performance, you may not be eligible. If, however, you were laid off or fired through no fault of your own, you could qualify for benefits.

4) Are you able and willing to work again right now?

If you're too sick or injured or unable to actively seek work right now, you're probably not going to qualify. You must be willing to work and actively seeking it when collecting unemployment.

How to Head Off Ex-Employer Challenge

To prevent your former employer(s) from contesting your unemployment claim, keep several points in mind:

DON'T QUIT.

If your employer is close to laying you off through no fault of your own, don't voluntarily quit. One area of employer contention often is: Did you quit or were you fired? Don't send e-mails to colleagues letting them know you've opted to resign.

GET IT IN WRITING AND READ FINE PRINT.

If you're asked to sign any kind of severance agreement, read it carefully to ensure you're not waiving your right to collect unemployment. Whenever possible, ask for the termination notice in writing, including verification of your dates of service. Keep a journal with notes on anyone who witnessed the conversation in which you were told that you were being laid off. Write down the specific language used, especially if you're concerned about the possibility of the boss fighting your claim.

BE HONEST AND ACCURATE.

Most importantly, be honest and accurate when filing a claim. Whatever you indicate on the unemployment application, such as your salary, dates of employment and the reason for your termination, will be forwarded to your previous employers -- not just the most recent employer, but all employers in the last 12 to 18 months. Mistakes or lies will cause those employers to contest your claim and may cause a delay or rejection of your benefits.

The weekly payout varies by state, but the national average is about $300 per week. The standard length is 26 weeks.

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