Money Matters

How Social Security spouse benefits work

CorrespondentApril 25, 2010 

Q: A friend at the club told me she heard that my husband's former wife is collecting Social Security benefits off my husband's earnings record.

She is 66 years old and has never earned one penny her entire life! I called Social Security to see whether I could collect a spousal benefit and they said not if my husband is still working and has not begun taking Social Security benefits.

I am 62 and am eligible for my own Social Security (albeit small), and the woman I spoke with said I could begin my own Social Security and then when my husband begins collecting his, I could apply for a spousal benefit, which may be greater than my own.

This doesn't make any sense to me that an ex can collect on my husband's earnings and I can't. Will the ex collecting before me have any impact on my spousal benefit? If so, is there a way to prevent her from collecting? If I can't collect on his while he is still working, I think it makes sense to begin mine now. Then next year when my husband begins collecting his, switch over to the spousal benefit, which will be half of his and greater than my own. Does this make sense?

Nothing like friends at the club to keep you informed on the ex's business!

If your husband's ex-wife meets all of the requirements, she is entitled to divorced spouse Social Security benefits. The requirements are: 1) she must have been married for at least 10 years to your husband; 2) your husband is at least age 62; 3) she is at least age 62; 4) they have been divorced for at least 2 years and 5) her own Social Security benefits based on her earnings do not equal or exceed one-half of your husband's primary insurance amount.

Any benefits she receives will not affect your benefits. In the unlikely but possible event that you and your husband should divorce, if you meet the above requirements you will also be entitled to a divorced spouse benefit. If your husband pre-deceases both of you and you are either still married or divorced and meet the above requirements, you will both qualify for widow benefits, which could be 100 percent of his primary insurance amount (PIA).

As a current spouse, you cannot receive spousal benefits until your husband is entitled to benefits. A person becomes entitled by filing an application for Social Security. He may be eligible by meeting the 40-quarter requirement, but if he hasn't applied for benefits you can't receive any based on his earnings record.

The benefit amount you will receive based on your earnings and/or your spouse's earnings will be reduced if you begin benefits before your full retirement age (FRA), which is 66. If you file for your own benefit at age 62 and then switch to your spousal benefit next year at age 63, your spousal benefit will not be 50 percent of your husband's benefit.

Even if you wait until your full retirement age to apply for spousal benefits, you will not receive 50 percent of your husband's benefit if you begin your own benefits early. Your spousal benefit will be a combination of your reduced benefit plus an amount for the spousal portion.

Here's an example not using any cost of living adjustments: Your husband's primary insurance amount is $2,000 and yours is $600. If you begin your benefits at age 62 you will receive 75 percent of your PIA or $450 a month. If your husband files for his benefit at his FRA, he will receive $2,000, and if you file for a spousal benefit at your FRA you will receive $850, not $1,000. Your PIA ($600) is subtracted from one-half of your husband's PIA ($1,000). The difference of $400 is added to your reduced benefit to determine your spousal benefit. If you don't file for your benefit early and wait until your FRA, your spousal benefit would be the full one-half of your husband's PIA, or $1,000.

Holly Nicholson is a certified financial planner in Raleigh. Reach her at or P.O. Box 99466, Raleigh, NC 27624. She cannot answer every question.

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