Paying in to the Social Security retirement system means you'll be eligible for benefits when you reach the legal retirement age. Your wife may not be so fortunate. It's all based on "work credits," which you begin collecting as soon as you start paying Social Security taxes. If your spouse doesn't have enough of them, the system won't pay her any retirement benefits. Fortunately, Social Security makes a provision for spousal benefits on your work record.
Social Security expects you to have 40 work credits before it lets you enjoy retirement benefits. In 2012, the agency gave a work credit for $1,130 in earnings, while work credits maxed out at four a year. When you're eligible for Social Security, these numbers will turn up on your record. It's set up so some of the numbers carry over to your spouse. Social Security will pay up to half of the benefit due to the wife based on the husband's work record.
Full Retirement Age
Spouse benefits are also impacted by the year your wife starts taking them. That can be as early as age 62, but that's considered "early retirement." If you take early retirement, the agency reduces benefits by 25 percent -- permanently. The reduction amount gets thinner as you get closer you get to "full retirement" age, which varies from 65 to 67 depending on your birth year. There are exceptions for widows, who can get a full benefit as early as age 60, and disabled women can get it at age 50.
Applying for Spouse Benefits
Your wife can fill out an application for her share of the benefits at any Social Security office. She'll need to bring a birth certificate, W-2s or self-employment income information, and a marriage certificate. They'll also accept applications at the website ssa.gov.
Benefits for Child Caregivers
Your wife can also draw spouse benefits at any age if she's caring for a disabled child. These stop when the child turns 16 unless the spouse is at least 62 years old. Social Security does, however, enforce a "family maximum." That's the highest amount all members of the family can draw from the system. The family maximum depends on several factors, including the number of family members who qualify for Social Security benefits.
Founder/president of the innovative reference publisher The Archive LLC, Tom Streissguth has been a self-employed business owner, independent bookseller and freelance author in the school/library market. Holding a bachelor's degree from Yale, Streissguth has published more than 100 works of history, biography, current affairs and geography for young readers.