Men worry about their own Social Security benefits, but wives have a right to spousal benefits. This applies even if the wife didn’t work. In that case, the spousal benefit is based on the work history of the husband. If a couple is still married at the time of retirement, they can plan the best way to claim Social Security benefits together. A divorced or widowed woman also has options to consider.
A wife does have the option of claiming spousal benefits if her husband's Social Security benefit amount is higher than her own.
Qualifying for Spousal Benefit
Once a husband starts receiving Social Security benefits, the wife can receive a benefit too if she is at least 62 years old, whether or not she has worked at any point in her life. A wife can receive a spousal benefit at any age if she is taking care of the couple's child who is younger than 16, or their child who is disabled and receiving a Social Security benefit.
For spouses who worked at some point and are eligible for Social Security benefits, the government will always issue your own benefits first. If your spousal benefits would have been higher, you will be paid the difference between those two amounts to ensure you're getting the greater of the two benefits.
Benefits for Divorced Women
A woman can receive up to 50 percent of an ex-husband's Social Security benefit if they are divorced. However, the couple must have been married at least 10 years. In addition, the wife must be unmarried and be at least 62. She can receive the benefit only if the ex is entitled to a Social Security benefit for himself, though he does not have to be currently collecting it. She can have the spousal benefit if it is greater than the benefit she would receive based on her own work history.
If the ex-husband has remarried, the wife can still file for Social Security benefits. It's important to note that filing for those benefits will not reduce the amount the ex-husband or his new spouse will receive. This same benefit applies to husbands. A wife's ex-spouse can file for her Social Security benefits, provided he's unmarried at the time of filing.
Benefits for Widows
A widow can receive a benefit based on her deceased husband’s earnings. She must be of full retirement age – 65, 66 or 67, depending on when she was born. The Social Security Administration offers an online calculator to determine retirement age.
If a widow is younger than retirement age, she will have to pass an earnings test to see whether she qualifies. The Social Security Administration publishes earning requirements online. Widows do not have to have been married for 10 years. Nine months of marriage can qualify a woman for a widow’s Social Security benefit if she can pass the earnings test.
A Closed Loophole
Until 2015, a loophole existed in which a married couple of full retirement age could maximize the Social Security benefits that one of them is entitled to by delaying, as long as possible, claiming that benefit. Under the old plan, if the husband was entitled to a greater benefit than the wife was, he could maximize it by claiming the benefit and then immediately suspending it. His wife would then apply for a spousal benefit from his work record.
But in 2015, the laws changed slightly so that when a spouse reaches retirement age and is eligible for both retired worker and spousal benefits, that retiree must file for both at once. That spouse will then receive the greater of the two benefits. This policy, titled "deemed filing." If a spouse retires and gets a benefit, then has a spouse who retires and the spousal benefit would be greater, the spouse can then file and get the greater of the two.
Kevin Johnston writes for Ameriprise Financial, the Rutgers University MBA Program and Evan Carmichael. He has written about business, marketing, finance, sales and investing for publications such as "The New York Daily News," "Business Age" and "Nation's Business." He is an instructional designer with credits for companies such as ADP, Standard and Poor's and Bank of America.