Can a Wife Collect Off Her Husband's Social Security If He Is Still Alive?

Can a Wife Collect Off Her Husband's Social Security If He Is Still Alive?
Image Credit: Uwe Bauch/iStock/GettyImages

Married and, in certain cases, divorced women can often collect benefits based either on their own Social Security earnings or on those of their husbands or ex-husbands. For women with this multiple option, it is wise to understand how the system works before choosing how to collect Social Security.

Social Security Marriage Rules

Married women are able to collect Social Security payments based on either their own incomes or the incomes of their husbands. The Social Security Administration looks at the respective benefits of each spouse. If the husband's benefits are more than twice the benefits the wife would receive, then the SSA awards her 50 percent of the husband's Social Security benefits, calculated at the full retirement age of the husband. The wife can receive the full 50 percent only if she files at her full retirement age; if she files at a younger age, benefits will be reduced to as low as 35 percent for the youngest possible filing age, 62.

Married Couple Strategies

If a husband has reached full retirement age but is not yet ready to collect Social Security, he can file for Social Security and then suspend payments. Then, according to U.S. News & World Report, it can only be to the couple's advantage if the wife files to get Social Security at age 62, provided her personal Social Security benefits will be at least 40 percent of her husband's. The husband, however, should delay filing at least until age 69 in order to get the maximum benefit possible. This strategy maximizes lifetime Social Security income for the couple. In addition, the wife may still continue to accrue delayed retirement benefits on her own income, and at some point she can switch over to that if the benefit becomes higher than her portion of the husband's benefit.

Social Security Rules for Divorced Women

A divorced woman can collect Social Security based on her most recent husband's benefits, provided she was married for a minimum of 10 years and does not remarry prior to age 60. In all other respects, the rules for collecting Social Security based on an ex-husband's earnings are identical to those of a woman still married to the husband.

Divorced Woman Strategies

Just as a still-married wife can, a divorced woman eligible to collect based on an ex-spouse's income can file for Social Security twice: once using her own account and once using her ex-spouse's account. Thus, she can file for Social Security at the age of 62 for a reduced benefit, allowing her own account to accrue delayed Social Security credits, then file again at age 70 to collect her full Social Security benefits on her own account if her benefits will then be higher than those she is currently receiving. A divorced woman can receive benefits based on her ex-husband's account, however, only if he has filed for Social Security already or if he has reached full retirement age.

Continuing to Work

A wife or divorced woman who continues to work past the day she filed to collect Social Security will have her benefits cut by $1 for every $2 of income (or $1 for every $3, in the year she reaches full retirement age). However, her personal Social Security account will continue to accrue value based on that work, making it more valuable if she later files to receive her own Social Security instead of her husband's. Similarly, a husband who continues to work will also continue to accrue value in his Social Security account. In the latter case, the wife's Social Security benefits will be recalculated every year to figure in any increases.