Q & A

Ask Rusty – Why Should a Non-working Spouse be Entitled to Social Security Benefits?

Dear Rusty: Why can a non-working spouse claim half of their working spouse’s benefit even though they have not contributed to the Social Security system? This doesn’t seem right or fair to those of us who have contributed for years from our paychecks. Signed: Inquisitive

Dear Inquisitive: This is a question which needs a bit of historical background to properly explain: Social Security’s original purpose when it was enacted in 1935 was to prevent America’s seniors from living in poverty (remember, Social Security was enacted during the “Great Depression”). Even before the first Social Security check was sent to a retired worker in 1940, Congress had already changed the original Social Security law to, as well, provide anti-poverty benefits to non-working spouses of a worker (a predominant family reality at that time) and surviving spouses, as well as to their minor children. Social Security’s fundamental goal has always been to lift eligible Americans out of poverty, which it still does very effectively. 

It’s important to note that this change did not (and does not) detract in any way from the benefits provided to those who work and contribute to Social Security thus earning their own SS retirement benefit. In other words, those who receive their personally earned SS retirement benefit are not at all penalized if their non-working spouse also receives a benefit (albeit a considerably smaller amount) on the worker’s record. Living expenses for two people are, simply, higher than for one, which was/is the rationale for also paying benefits to a dependent not eligible for Social Security benefits on their own work record. In the end, it all comes down to avoiding poverty.

Although the numbers vary somewhat by state, gender, and ethnicity, without Social Security about 38% of all Americans over age 65 would be living below the poverty line, whereas with Social Security only about 9% of Americans over 65 live below the poverty line. But that 9% number would be significantly higher if non-working spouses and survivors of eligible workers were also not entitled to Social Security benefits. 

While it is true that Social Security is facing future solvency issues, the thought of restricting benefits to only those who have worked and contributed to the program (and not to their non-working spouses or minor children) is not something being considered by anyone with Congressional influence, regardless of political affiliation. Doing so would be devastating to a large segment of the American population, severely increasing poverty – the very thing that Social Security is designed to prevent. 

This article is intended for information purposes only and does not represent legal or financial guidance. It presents the opinions and interpretations of the AMAC Foundation’s staff, trained and accredited by the National Social Security Association (NSSA). NSSA and the AMAC Foundation and its staff are not affiliated with or endorsed by the Social Security Administration or any other governmental entity. To submit a question, visit our website (amacfoundation.org/programs/social-security-advisory) or email us at [email protected]

Comments On This Topic

  1. I am trying to find if my wife is able to receive a portion of my SST payment. She is not an American . She is a Canadian . What are the rules for surviors benifets.

    • James,
      Your wife may be entitled to a benefit as your spouse or surviving spouse if you have been married for at least one year. Her citizenship isn’t a significant factor – because she is your wife and if she otherwise qualifies, she will be eligible for a spousal or survivor benefit from you. But your wife’s entitlement to a Social Security spousal or survivor benefit from you may be affected if she receives a Canadian (CPP) pension. If she does (receive a Canadian pension) any U.S. spousal or survivor benefit she may be entitled to would be offset by 2/3rds of her Canadian pension amount due to a U.S. provision known as the “Government Pension Offset” or GPO. The GPO affects anyone who has a pension earned without contributing to the U.S. Social Security program. We would be happy to answer any additional questions you have about your wife’s entitlement to a benefit as your spouse. Please contact us at [email protected], or call us at 1.888.750.2622 with any additional Social Security questions you may have.
      Russell Gloor
      National Social Security Advisor
      The AMAC Foundation

      • To Russ Gloor – this is is incorrect. GPO does not apply to foreign pensions, only the WEP. This is because the SSA does not consider a foreign pension to be a government pension. The WEP applies to foreign pensions because they are considered by SSA to be non-covered. This distinction with foreign pensions is very misunderstood. WEP applies but GPO does not.

        • Karen,
          Thanks for catching that misstatement on my part. You are absolutely correct that a foreign pension does not cause the GPO to apply; foreign pensions only affect U.S. Social Security retirement benefits under a rule known as the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP). I sincerely appreciate your feedback, and I will contact the person who submitted that question to clarify.
          Russell Gloor
          National Social Security Advisor
          The AMAC Foundation

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