Can a Wife Receive Social Security Benefits Based on Her Husband's Work History?

Planning ahead for retirement should include your spouse’s Social Security benefits.

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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.

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 .

Benefits for Divorced Women

A woman can receive up to 50 percent of her ex-husband’s Social Security benefit if she is divorced. However, she must have been married at least 10 years. In addition, she must be unmarried and be at least 62. She can receive the benefit only if her ex-husband 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.

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 need 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.

Strategies for Couples

A married couple of full retirement age can maximize the Social Security benefits that one of them is entitled to by delaying, as long as possible, claiming that benefit. If the husband is entitled to a greater benefit than the wife is, he can maximize it by claiming the benefit and then immediately suspending it. His wife would then apply for a spousal benefit from his work record. The suspension would then make the husband’s benefit continue to grow as if he had never taken a benefit.

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About the Author

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.

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