Dear Dr. Don,
My fiance and I have lived together going on 15 years. I want to know if I would be able to collect on his Social Security if and when I needed to. I'm 60 and he is 51 and we live in Washington state. If you could help me out on this I would appreciate it.
-- Debbie Down-aisle

Dear Debbie,
The following is from the Social Security Administration's FAQ pages on its website.

Does Social Security recognize common-law marriage for the purpose of paying survivors and spouse's benefits?
Social Security follows the laws of the state where the worker was residing at the time of death or the place where the worker is residing when the spouse applies for benefits. In order for a common-law marriage to be valid, it must have been contracted in a state where common-law marriages are recognized.

Many states do not honor common-law marriages, so you should check local laws. However, most states -- even those in which a man and woman could not enter into a valid common-law marriage -- will generally recognize a common-law marriage validly entered into in another state. Again, check local laws.

While I'm not an attorney, a listing of laws by state concerning common-law marriage shows that Washington doesn't recognize common-law marriages. You say that he's your fiance, and you've been living together for almost 15 years, so when's the wedding?

You can't apply for the spousal retirement benefit until your husband has filed for Social Security retirement benefits. If he applies at age 62, he'll get a reduced benefit compared to waiting until his full retirement age. Since you'll be older than your full retirement age, you'll get the full spousal benefit. His applying early would, however, reduce your survivor's benefit if he were to predecease you.

You didn't say whether you have enough work history to claim benefits on your own work record. If you do, you have some options about when you start collecting based on your work history. The Social Security Web page, "When to start your benefits," can help you decide.