There aren't a lot of benefits available to spouses who pass up a career to care for children or a disabled or aging loved one. However, a spouse/caregiver may at least be eligible to receive Social Security benefits under certain circumstances.
Primary Insurance Amount
The primary insurance amount is the Social Security benefit someone would be entitled to at full retirement age, which is age 65 for those born before 1937, increasing incrementally up to age 67 for those born in 1960 or later. A person generally needs 40 credits, or four quarters of earnings for 10 years, to qualify for benefits, although it's possible to receive Social Security disability benefits with a shorter work record. Taking early retirement, available as early as age 62, permanently decreases your benefit.
Spouses who don't have enough credits to qualify for Social Security on their own or whose benefit, based on their earnings, would be less than the spousal benefit, can receive half their working spouse's benefit. So a spouse who stayed home to care for children would still be entitled to Social Security. Further, benefits can begin as early as age 62. So a spouse who left her job to care for elderly parents, for example, could get Social Security benefits while serving as a caregiver, if she had reached age 62. The benefit would be permanently reduced, and the spouse would not benefit from any future earnings by the working spouse that might increase the benefit.
Often a spouse who worked most of her life will qualify for a primary insurance amount that is greater than the spouse benefit. However, if she needs to leave work early to serve as a caregiver, she may not want to permanently reduce her own benefit by taking it early. In that case she has the option to take a reduced early retirement benefit based on half of the working spouse's benefit beginning at age 62 and put off taking her own benefit until reaching full retirement age.
A spouse who stays home to care for healthy children while the other spouse continues to work is still not entitled to Social Security until age 62. However, if the child is disabled and receiving his own Social Security benefit, the caregiver parent can qualify for benefits at any age based on the working parent's record. The spouse/caregiver's benefit would end when the child reached age 18 -- 19 if a full-time student -- unless the child became disabled before age 22. In addition, if the working spouse becomes disabled, and the couple has children younger than 16, the caregiving spouse would also be entitled to benefits. However, a family benefit limit applies. Unfortunately, serving as caregiver to elderly parents or other loved ones does not qualify someone to receive Social Security benefits before age 62.
Nancy Cross is a certified paralegal who has worked as an employee benefits specialist and counseled employees on retirement preparation, including financial and estate planning. In addition to writing and editing, she runs a small business with her husband and is a certified personal trainer with the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America (AFAA).