American workers can start receiving Social Security benefits as early as age 62, whether they retire early or stay in the workforce.
However, retirement is more challenging to define for stay-at-home parents who performed unpaid caregiving work while their spouse worked outside the home.
If you’re among the 18% of stay-at-home caregivers, you could be eligible to receive Social Security payments depending on your current or former spouse’s work history.
Keep reading to learn more about which benefits you could be entitled to and how to claim them.
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Receiving spousal benefits doesn’t reduce your spouse’s retirement income
First of all, it’s crucial to know that applying to receive a Social Security spousal benefit doesn’t take money out of one individual’s pocket and put it into another’s.
Instead, your spouse receives the amount they’re entitled to, and you receive up to 50% of that amount as a spousal benefit.
Put another way, you don’t need to worry about harming your financial future by taking a spousal benefit. It’s a wise financial that can help add more money to your savings if you're on a tight retirement budget.
You usually need to be in the workforce for 10 years to qualify for your own Social Security benefits
Some individuals may have earned Social Security wages and paid into the Social Security fund before transitioning into a full-time stay-at-home role.
However, most individuals aren’t eligible to receive Social Security retirement benefits unless they’ve paid into Social Security for 10 years.
As a result, if you didn’t work full-time outside the home for at least 10 years, you probably paid Social Security taxes, but you likely aren’t eligible to receive your own retirement benefits.
Fortunately, if you were (or are) married to someone who paid into Social Security for 10 years and does qualify for a retirement benefit, you’re eligible for a certain amount of that benefit as well.
You become eligible for spousal benefits after 12 months of marriage
If you didn’t work outside the home, but your spouse did, you can usually qualify for Social Security spousal benefits. However, marrying someone who earns Social Security wages doesn’t automatically entitle you to spousal benefits.
Typically, you won’t be considered eligible for the spousal benefit until you’ve been married for a full 12 months.
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The 12-month rule is waived for certain parents
Are you the parent of your working spouse’s child? You don’t have to wait 12 months to qualify for their Social Security benefit. You’re eligible immediately after marrying.
You may still be eligible for spousal benefits if you’re divorced
You don’t have to be currently married to qualify for spousal benefits. If you were married for at least 10 years prior to a divorce, you can claim spousal benefits even if your former partner is now remarried.
On the other hand, if you’re currently married to someone else, you can’t claim a Social Security spousal benefit from your former partner.
You can apply for spousal benefits starting four months before your 62nd birthday
Both individual workers and their qualifying spouses can start receiving Social Security benefits once they reach age 62. To start getting those benefits as soon as you turn 62, you may apply for them starting four months before your birthday.
Your spousal benefit can be up to 50% of your working spouse’s benefit
If you wait until your full retirement age to apply for your Social Security spousal benefit, you should be entitled to 50% of your spouse’s (or former spouse’s) benefit. If you apply for benefits before reaching your full retirement age, you’ll receive a reduced percentage.
However, if you’re caring for a qualified dependent (meaning a child under age 16 or receiving Social Security disability benefits), you’ll receive the full benefit regardless of how many years you are from age 62.
You should seriously consider delaying spousal benefits until at least age 65
As mentioned above, the longer you wait to apply for Social Security spousal benefits, the higher the monthly payment you’ll receive.
In other words, for each month you receive benefits before your full retirement age, your benefit amount is reduced by a certain percentage.
For instance, if your full retirement age is 66 and you start taking a spousal benefit at 62, you’ll receive no more than 35% of your working spouse’s benefit.
If you wait until age 64, you’ll qualify for 41.7% of their benefit. The only way to receive the full 50% is to put off claiming the spousal benefit until age 66.
You can still collect your Social Security benefit along with a spousal benefit
If you worked outside the home long enough to have your own Social Security retirement benefit, you’re entitled to that monthly payment and can claim it starting at age 62.
But if your working spouse’s benefit amount is higher than yours, you’ll also receive a spousal benefit payment.
For instance, let’s say your Social Security benefit is $1,500 a month and your spouse’s is $1,625 a month. Once you apply for benefits, you’ll receive your own $1,500 monthly benefit plus an additional $125 as your spousal benefit.
Note that the higher-earning spouse with the greater Social Security benefit won’t receive additional money based on their lower-earning spouse’s benefits.
Your spousal benefits might be taxable
Depending on your household’s annual income, your Social Security benefits might be taxable — including your Social Security spousal benefit.
If you and your spouse file jointly and have an annual combined income below $32,000, your benefits aren’t taxed. If your income is between $32,000 and $44,000, you’ll be taxed on up to 50% of your Social Security benefit.
And if your household makes a combined total of more than $44,000, up to 85% of your benefits could be subject to federal taxes.
There’s a difference between spousal benefits and survivor benefits
If your working spouse died, you’ll likely qualify for Social Security survivor benefits, which total 100% of your deceased spouse’s retirement benefit. Spousal benefits can’t exceed 50% of the working spouse’s retirement benefit.
Widows and widowers qualify for survivor benefits if they’re over age 60 and were married to the deceased individual for at least nine continuous months. As with spousal benefits, the age requirement is waived if you’re disabled or caring for the decedent’s children.
Additionally, you qualify for survivor benefits even if you have remarried, as long as you remarried after age 60 or age 50 if you’re disabled.
Ex-spouses can qualify for survivor benefits
Former spouses of deceased individuals may also be eligible for survivor benefits. As with spousal benefits, though, they must have been married for 10 years before divorcing to qualify.
Again, remarrying doesn’t disqualify you from receiving survivor benefits if you remarried after age 60 or 50 if you’re disabled.
You can apply for spousal and survivor benefits online
If you’re ready to start claiming spousal or survivor benefits based on a current or former partner’s work history, you can do so online via the Social Security Administration’s website.
As a stay-at-home partner or parent, you contributed immensely to keeping your household up and running while your spouse worked.
Even if you didn’t earn a taxable wage, you deserve the ability to retire alongside your spouse.
Figuring out if you qualify for spousal benefits is a crucial way to ensure you don't miss out on extra money that can make the difference between a stressful retirement and a stable one.