Unmarried couples that live together are often at a disadvantage when it comes to Social Security benefits—especially if one partner stays at home caring for children or running the household.
Typically, you qualify for Social Security benefits based on your own earnings record. If you don't work at a job that requires payment of Social Security tax, you don't earn credit towards Social Security benefits. But married couples (including couples who have a common law marriage) get a benefit—spouses are eligible for certain Social Security benefits based on the other spouse's earnings record. These are called dependents' benefits (which you get if your spouse qualifies for retirement or disability benefits) and survivors' benefits (which you get if your deceased spouse or ex-spouse qualified for retirement or disability benefits). So, for example, if a husband stays at home and takes care of the kids for a number of years, he may still be able to collect Social Security benefits based on his wife's earnings record.
Adults who live together, but are not married, are not eligible for their partner's dependents' or survivors' benefits although their children are dependents of both. This presents an obvious disadvantage when one partner in a living together arrangement works outside the home and the other works in the home caring for kids or taking care of the household.
A stay-at-home partner could earn Social Security credits, however, if the other partner employed him or her to take care of the home and children. The "employer partner" would pay wages to the stay-at-home partner and pay Social Security tax on the stay-at-home partner's behalf. Both partners would have to comply with other requirements. For example, the stay-at-home partner would have to pay state and federal income tax on the wages. And in many states, the "employer partner" would also have to pay disability insurance and other types of insurance or taxes.
Also, living with someone doesn't end Social Security benefits derived from a former marriage. If your spouse has died and you are receiving survivor's benefits or if you are divorced, you can get benefits on your ex-spouse's Social Security account if your marriage lasted at least ten years and, in some cases, if you have been divorced for at least two years (it makes no difference whether a former spouse has remarried or you are living with someone). Similarly, if you qualify for benefits as a divorced spouse and your ex has died, you can receive survivor's benefits as early as age 60 (50 if you're disabled).
For advice on Social Security rules and benefits, contact a local office of the Social Security Administration or check the agency's website. For a clear explanation of Social Security benefits—what's available and how to claim them—see Social Security, Medicare & Government Pensions: Get the Most Out of Your Retirement & Medical Benefits, by Joseph Matthews with Dorothy Matthews Berman (Nolo).