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Social Security Mailbox

Can My Wife Get a Check if I Don’t?

The worker must begin benefits first — then a spousal claim can follow

En español | Q. I’m working at age 62 and haven’t claimed retirement benefits. Can my wife get benefits on my record when she turns 62? She’s never worked herself.

A.  Sorry, but the answer is no. Because your wife never worked and did not contribute to Social Security, she can’t get a check simply because she turns 62. She’ll need to wait until you file for your own benefits. Then she could seek a spousal benefit based on your work record.

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To qualify, she’d need to be at least 62 — or be caring for a child who is under the age of 16 or disabled. In addition, the child must be entitled to benefits on your work record.

You should keep in mind that if you and your wife both file at 62, your benefits will generally be permanently reduced. If you were entitled to a $1,000 monthly benefit had you waited until full retirement age, 66, it would be reduced to $750, while a $500 spousal check would be cut to $350. When you take early benefits you’ll receive monthly payments for a longer period of time, but each payment will be lower than if you’d waited. For more information, see: "Benefits for Your Spouse" on the Social Security website.

Q. I’d like to retire in a few months. My spouse and I will receive almost $31,000 a year in Social Security benefits. However, we’ll also need to withdraw $8,000 yearly from my IRA. Will we be taxed on the whole $39,000, or just the $8,000?

A. If Social Security and the IRA withdrawal will be your only income, your Social Security will be tax-free. But the $8,000 from the IRA, if it was previously untaxed money, will count as taxable income.

The tax code basically provides that people who are living largely on Social Security don’t pay taxes on those benefits. But for people who have considerable other income as well, formulas kick in to start taxing portions of the benefits.

How much extra income can you have before you get taxed? To answer that question, the IRS looks at a sum it calls “combined income.” This consists of your adjusted gross income (it’s line 37 on a 1040 form and includes such things as wages, dividends and IRA withdrawals), plus tax-exempt interest, plus half your Social Security benefit.

If these add up to less than $32,000 for a couple filing jointly ($25,000 for an individual), the benefits are tax-free. If they add up to more, a sliding scale kicks in to tax as much as 85 percent of what Social Security sends you.

So, if you have no other income, you’d be well below the $32,000 ceiling for a couple filing jointly. Your benefits would not be taxed. But if you have a lot of other money coming in, be prepared to see parts of your Social Security check go back to Uncle Sam.

You may also like: Top 25 Social Security questions. >>

Stan Hinden, a former columnist for the Washington Post, wrote How to Retire Happy: The 12 Most Important Decisions You Must Make Before You Retire. Have a question for the Social Security Mailbox? Check out the archive. If you don't find your answer there, send a query.

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