Can foreign-born spouse get benefits?

Veteran personal finance journalist Robert Powell answers your questions for USA WEEKEND.

Dr. Katy is a contributing expert.

I have been married for 21 years. My husband was born outside the U.S., but is now an American citizen. He did not work enough in the U.S. to qualify for Medicare or Social Security. As a spouse, what benefits is he eligible for? He is 71 and currently is on my employer-sponsored health insurance plan. He has started substitute teaching. What would he have to do to be eligible for Medicare or Social Security? I will be 64 later this year.
— Carolyn Orbell, Louisville

Your situation is a bit complicated and might require talking to a qualified professional to help you sort through myriad options and strategies. That said, your husband is eligible for benefits based on your employment history.

But “it’s all a matter of timing,” says Katy Votava, founder of GoodCare.com. “He just has to wait until you are collecting Social Security retirement or disability benefits to qualify.” And once you are receiving Social Security retirement benefits, Votava says, your husband can apply for spousal retirement benefits.

But don’t do that just yet. If you claim now, prior to what the government calls your full retirement age (FRA), you’ll get a reduced payment for the rest of your life, says Votava. “Also, if you receive retirement benefits before full retirement age and are employed, your retirement benefits may be reduced, depending on your income,” she says. What’s more, you won’t be able to take advantage of a strategy that could optimize your household’s overall Social Security benefits.

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