When the Wife Is the Primary Breadwinner

By Tom Margenau
Tom Margenau
Tom Margenau
Tom Margenau worked for 32 years in a variety of positions for the Social Security Administration before retiring in 2005. He has served as the director of SSA's public information office, the chief editor of more than 100 SSA publications, a deputy press officer and spokesman, and a speechwriter for the commissioner of Social Security. For 12 years, he also wrote Social Security columns for local newspapers.
June 26, 2021 Updated: June 26, 2021

Every Social Security rule I can think of is gender-neutral. In other words, the same laws apply to men and women equally. But society hasn’t always been gender-neutral. We’ve all heard the statistics: Men tend to make more money than women. And because Social Security benefits are based on lifetime income, men end up getting higher Social Security benefits than women do.

Also, biology isn’t gender-neutral. Women have babies. Men don’t. So women take more time off work to have and, frequently, raise children. That’s just another reason women end up with a lower lifetime income and, therefore, less Social Security benefits than men.

What those factors (among others) mean is that when I talk about benefits available to spouses, I am almost always talking about benefits available to women. Because a wife usually ends up with a lower Social Security benefit than her husband, she is much more likely to be eligible for spousal benefits on his record—especially after he dies.

But today’s questions come from couples who have bucked that trend. They come from households where the wife made more money than her husband. So they want to know how Social Security will work in their cases.

Q: I am about to turn 62. I have been a stay-at-home husband and father and, now, grandfather most of my adult life. My wife, who is also 62, is a doctor, and she always had sufficient income to care for all our needs. But now that we are both pushing retirement age, we want to know more about Social Security. Specifically, I want to know if I am due any spousal benefits on my wife’s record.

A: Yes, you will be due husband’s benefits on your wife’s Social Security record. But you’ve got to wait until she retires. In other words, you can’t get any dependent benefits on her record until she is getting Social Security herself. If she is still working when she reaches her full retirement age, it might be wise for her to file for her Social Security then because they will be able to pay you your husband’s benefit share on top of her own benefits. And, by the way, that share is 50 percent if you are over your full retirement age when she files.

One other thought: If you’ve worked at least 10 years, you would be due a small benefit on your own account. You could file for that now and switch to the higher husband’s benefits on her record when she files.

Q: I am 72 and single. My ex-wife just turned 62. We were married for 28 years. She usually made more money than I did. Can I get any extra Social Security benefits on her record?

A: Just as a divorced wife might be due benefits on her ex-husband’s record, you might be due benefits on your ex-wife’s record. But you would only be due extra benefits if your spousal rate is greater than what you are getting on your own account. Your spousal rate should be about half of your ex-wife’s full retirement rate. My hunch is your own benefit exceeds half of hers, so I’m guessing you aren’t due any husband’s benefits. However, if your own rate is less than half of hers, then call the Social Security Administration at 800-772-1213 to file.

For long-range planning purposes, you should know that if you happen to outlive your ex, you would be due divorced widower’s benefits after she dies. You would get your benefit supplemented up to whatever she was getting at the time of death.

Q: I am 62 and a widower. I am about to retire. Although our incomes were similar, my wife generally made just a little more than me. What are my Social Security options?

A: You can employ what I usually call the “widow’s option.” In your case, we would call it the “widower’s option.” What that means is that you can file for reduced widower’s benefits once you retire. At 62, you’d get about 82 percent of her full benefit. Then at your full retirement age, you could switch to 100 percent of your own benefit. Or you could wait until 70 and switch to 132 percent of your own benefit.

Q: I am about to reach my full retirement age and plan to file for my Social Security. I’ve got an ex-husband who was a conniving cheat and chiseler. When we divorced after a 22-year marriage, I made sure the divorce decree specified that he couldn’t get a nickel of my Social Security. So now that I am about to sign up for Social Security, do I just give them a copy of my divorce papers? Or is there some form I have to sign to keep him from getting any of my benefits?

A: Well, it has finally happened. Over my past almost half-century of working on Social Security issues, I have heard from maybe 10,000 men who added an “I don’t want my wife to get any of my Social Security” clause into a divorce decree. You are the first woman I’ve ever come across who did the same. Congratulations!

But here’s the bad news: That clause isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on! Anything you have your lawyer scribble into your divorce papers cannot override federal law. In other words, if the law says your ex is due benefits on your account, you or your lawyer can’t stop him from getting those benefits.

Now here might be some good news. If your ex is due anything on your account, he would be due between one-third and one-half of your benefit (depending on factors I don’t know about your case). And I’m guessing his own Social Security benefit is more than that. So he will just get his own benefit.

And what you should do is pray he passes before you do. As explained elsewhere in this column, if you die first, there is a pretty good chance he would be due divorced widower’s benefits on your record. And I bet that would just make you turn over in your grave!

Tom Margenau worked for 32 years in a variety of positions for the Social Security Administration before retiring in 2005. He has served as the director of SSA’s public information office, the chief editor of more than 100 SSA publications, a deputy press officer and spokesman, and a speechwriter for the commissioner of Social Security. For 12 years, he also wrote Social Security columns for local newspapers, and recently published the book “Social Security: Simple and Smart.” If you have a Social Security question, contact him at thomas.margenau@comcast.net

Tom Margenau
Tom Margenau
Tom Margenau worked for 32 years in a variety of positions for the Social Security Administration before retiring in 2005. He has served as the director of SSA's public information office, the chief editor of more than 100 SSA publications, a deputy press officer and spokesman, and a speechwriter for the commissioner of Social Security. For 12 years, he also wrote Social Security columns for local newspapers.