How Spousal Social Security Benefits Work
Dear Liz: My wife has never worked outside the home and therefore has no Social Security credits. My understanding is that as a nonworking spouse, she is entitled to 50% of my benefit, assuming she is 66 years old and I have started receiving benefits. Is that correct?
Answer: You’ve got the right general idea. But spousal benefits are available to working spouses as well, your wife has the right to start benefits earlier (at a discounted rate) and you don’t have to actually receive checks for her to get this benefit.
Your wife is eligible for a spousal benefit based on your “primary insurance amount.” That’s the amount you would receive at your normal retirement age, no matter whether you’ve actually attained that age or started benefits. Normal retirement age is currently 66, but it will rise to 67 for people born after 1959. If she waits until her own full retirement age to start benefits, then she can qualify for a benefit equal to half your primary insurance amount. If she starts earlier, the benefit is permanently reduced.
If your wife had worked and qualified for her own retirement benefit, the Social Security Administration would give her whichever benefit paid the most — her own, or a portion of yours.
Because you’re still married, your wife wouldn’t be able to start spousal benefits until you’ve claimed your own benefit. However, if you’ve reached your full retirement age, you have the option to “file and suspend.” That means you’d file for benefits but immediately suspend your claim. That way, your benefit could continue to grow while she could begin receiving her payments.
If you were divorced but had been married at least 10 years, she could begin her benefits without waiting for you to file for your own. That exception was put into place so people wouldn’t have to seek their exes’ cooperation to get benefits.