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Social Security and You: When the Wife is the Primary Breadwinner

Tom Margenau on

Every Social Security rule I can think of is gender-neutral. In other words, the same laws apply to men and women equally. But society hasn't always been gender neutral. We all have heard the statistics: Men tend to make more money than women. And because Social Security benefits are based on lifetime income, men end up getting higher Social Security benefits than women do.

Also, biology isn't gender-neutral. Women have babies. Men don't. So women take more time off work to have and, frequently, raise children. That's just another reason women end up with a lower lifetime income and, therefore, less Social Security benefits than men.

What those factors (among others) mean is that when I talk about benefits available to spouses, I am almost always talking about benefits available to women. Because a wife usually ends up with a lower Social Security benefit than her husband, she is much more likely to be eligible for spousal benefits on his record -- especially after he dies.

But today's questions come from couples who have bucked that trend. They come from households where the wife made more money than her husband. So they want to know how Social Security will work in their cases.

Q: I am about to turn 62. I have been a stay-at-home husband and father and, now, grandfather most of my adult life. My wife, who is also 62, is a doctor, and she always had sufficient income to care for all our needs. But now that we are both pushing retirement age, we want to know more about Social Security. Specifically, I want to know if I am due any spousal benefits on my wife's record.

A: Yes, you will be due husband's benefits on your wife's Social Security record. But you've got to wait until she retires. In other words, you can't get any dependent benefits on her record until she is getting Social Security herself. If she is still working when she reaches her full retirement age, it might be wise for her to file for her Social Security then because they will be able to pay you your husband's benefit share on top of her own benefits. And, by the way, that share is 50% if you are over your full retirement age when she files.

 

One other thought: If you've worked at least 10 years, you would be due a small benefit on your own account. You could file for that now and switch to the higher husband's benefits on her record when she files.

Q: I am 72 and single. My ex-wife just turned 62. We were married for 28 years. She usually made more money than I did. Can I get any extra Social Security benefits on her record?

A: Just as a divorced wife might be due benefits on her ex-husband's record, you might be due benefits on your ex-wife's record. But you would only be due extra benefits if your spousal rate is greater than what you are getting on your own account. Your spousal rate should be about half of your ex-wife's full retirement rate. My hunch is your own benefit exceeds half of hers, so I'm guessing you aren't due any husband's benefits. However, if your own rate is less than half of hers, then call the Social Security Administration at 800-772-1213 to file.

For long-range planning purposes, you should know that if you happen to outlive your ex, you would be due divorced widower's benefits after she dies. You would get your benefit supplemented up to whatever she was getting at the time of death.

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