One of the most common Social Security eligibility questions is whether a spouse who doesn’t work can qualify for retirement benefits.
When Social Security was first established, most families only had one bread-earner, and only the working spouse qualified for retirement income. This caused financial difficulties for the spouse who didn’t work (and therefore didn’t qualify for retirement benefits) if the working spouse passed away first.
Thankfully the Social Security Administration recognized this hardship and amended the law to allow wives to collect based on their husband’s earnings. In 1939, spousal and survivor benefits were added to provide monthly benefits to qualified spouse and survivors of workers.
The family dynamic has changed a lot since Social Security was established back in 1935, but there are still many families where one spouse does not work, and therefore does not qualify for retirement benefits based on their own earnings.
Social Security Eligibility: Retirement Benefits
There are several requirements in order to be eligible for Social Security retirement benefits, including:
• Age: In order to qualify for Social Security retirement income, you must be at least age 62. Other benefits, such as survivor benefits or disability benefits may be collected at an earlier age, but the Social Security eligibility rules require you to be age 62 before you can apply for retirement benefits. On the other hand, you can delay collecting benefits until age 70; if you are still working or you want to maximize your retirement income.
• Work Credits: You must work in a covered job (i.e., where you contribute to Social Security through payroll tax deductions) for at least 40 credits to qualify for retirement benefits. You can earn up to four credits per year; so essentially, you must work for 10 years to be eligible for Social Security. In order to earn a work credit, you must earn a minimum dollar amount; in 2009 this minimum was $1,090. Credits do not have to be earned consecutively, which allows for people to leave the workforce for several years (to raise a family, etc.) and return to work later without losing their work credits already earned.
• Citizenship or Residency Status: Many people will be surprised to learn that you do not have to be a U.S. citizen to qualify for Social Security retirement benefits. The Social Security eligibility rules allow workers who pay into the system to qualify for benefits even if they are not U.S. citizens. You must live in the United States when you collect retirement benefits if you are a non-citizen (U.S. citizens may reside outside the U.S. and still collect benefits), and you must meet the other requirements to be eligible for retirement benefits.
Given the Social Security eligibility requirements listed above, most full-time homemakers will not qualify for benefits on their own, unless they worked for 10 years (40 credits) before they became a homemaker.
Social Security for Homemakers
However, non working spouses may qualify for Social Security based on their spouse’s earnings. Spousal benefits allow husbands and wives to collect retirement benefits based on their spouse’s earnings if they result in a higher benefit than their own. To be more specific, a spouse who has not worked or who has significantly lower earnings than their husband or wife can receive up to as much as half of their spouse’s full retirement benefit. In addition, homemakers can collect benefits on their ex-spouse’s earnings if they were married for at least ten years and they are currently unmarried.
In addition to spousal benefits, homemakers may also qualify for survivor benefits. Widows and widowers can start collecting benefits based on their deceased spouse’s earnings beginning at age 60 (age 50 if they are disabled). Children of deceased workers who are under age 18 (19 if they are still in high school) may also qualify for survivor benefits. This is very helpful for families with young children when the main bread earner passes away at an early age.
While full-time homemakers who have never worked or who have worked for less than 10 years generally won’t qualify for Social Security retirement benefits on their own, as you can see, they may be eligible for benefits based on their husband’s earnings. Note: while this article has assumed that the homemaker is female, Social Security is gender neutral, so men who choose to stay home to raise the kids can also qualify for spousal and survivor benefits.
Social Security retirement benefits are an important part of most people’s retirement income. There are many rules regarding when you can collect benefits which will affect your retirement income. Whether you are a career person or a homemaker, it’s important that you understand the Social Security eligibility rules so you can maximize your Social Security income.
[Note: The budget deal passed in November 2015 eliminated the file and suspend and restricted application strategies. For more information, please read Budget Deal Eliminates File and Suspend Social Security Filing Strategy.]