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Social Security Benefits for a Non-Working Spouse

D Cator 2014
Donna L. Cator, CFP®, CDFA®
Vice President, Wealth Advisor
[email protected]
(585) 394-4260 x50623

One wonderful aspect of Social Security is the fact that a spouse who has little or no lifetime earnings can receive benefits based on the work history of his/her spouse, ex-spouse or deceased spouse. Although this scenario isn’t as common as it once was, it is worth addressing.

At what time can a non-working spouse, who is not eligible to receive benefits on her own work history, begin collecting her spousal benefit? (Social Security is gender neutral, but for the sake of this article we refer to the wife as the spouse and the husband as the worker).

Below are some key points that help to answer this question:

  • Spousal benefits do not earn delayed credits, so the spouse will get the greatest benefit by starting Social Security payments at full retirement age (FRA). The FRA is age 66 for those born between the years 1943-1954. 
  • The spousal benefit is ½ of the worker’s primary insurance amount (PIA). 
  • The spouse must be married to the worker for at least one continuous year immediately before applying for benefits. 
  • The worker must be entitled to benefits. Actually, the worker would need to file for and start to receive benefits in order for spousal benefits to be available. If the worker wants to delay collecting benefits in order to build an enhanced benefit for himself, then he would “file and suspend”, although this option is available only if the worker has reached full retirement age. 
  • The spouse is eligible to apply for benefits prior to the FRA as long as she is at least age 62. If the spouse decides to apply for benefits at age 62, she would only receive 35% instead of 50% of the workers PIA. Because the reduced distribution is permanent, it is generally best to wait to FRA to begin collecting spousal benefits. However, if a spouse is taking care of a child who is either under age 16 or disabled and receiving Social Security benefits, a spouse is eligible for spousal benefits, regardless of age. 
  • Some different rules apply for divorced and surviving spouses.

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to the question of when a non-working spouse should begin claiming Social Security benefits. As noted above, there is no reason for a non-working spouse to delay her application past her full retirement age. Lastly, it is important to consider all factors of whether or not to begin taking reduced distributions prior to a non-spouses FRA, such as age of the spouse and the worker, health status, life expectancy, other resources, and life style goals. If you would like more information on the Social Security options for a non-working spouse, please contact me at (585) 419-0670, ext. 50623.