Though it is not nearly as common as it was decades ago, some families have only one wage-earner. A one wage-earner family presents a different situation when it comes to retirement income in two fashions: 1) when saving for retirement; and 2) when making choices in how to receive your retirement income.

A non-working spouse is unable to save money for retirement through an employer sponsored retirement plan (such as the TSP). That’s $18,500 of tax advantaged savings per year that the non-working spouse cannot take advantage of (an additional $6,000 if they are 50 or older). It’s a little different with an IRA. Though a non-working spouse cannot contribute to an IRA, the spouse who is working can contribute to a spousal IRA for them as long as their status is married, filing jointly.


For all federal benefits, the definition of spouse includes a legally married same sex spouse.

The amount that can be contributed to a spousal IRA is $5,500 (an additional $1,000 if they are 50 or older). There are income limits for deducting contributions to a traditional IRA, and there are income limits on even contributing to a Roth IRA, but one can make non-deductible contributions to a traditional IRA regardless of their income level. Bill Gates could make a non-deductible contribution to a traditional IRA, but Donald Trump couldn’t. You might ask why this is the case. The reason is that there is an age limit for contributing to a traditional IRA; you cannot contribute to a traditional IRA beginning in the year in which you reach 70 ½. You can find the current year’s income limits, and other helpful information, in IRS Publication 590-A, Contributions to Individual Retirement Arrangements.

In addition to saving for a non-working spouse’s retirement through an IRA, you could also fund a taxable account. Though there is no tax advantage to simply socking money aside in an account that pays your taxes as you go, there is also no limit on how much you may set aside, nor is there anything that would limit your ability (e.g., level of income, etc.) to do so.

When it comes to taking retirement income, you want to make sure that your spouse is protected too. Obviously, you would have him/her as the beneficiary on your TSP account. (If you haven’t checked your beneficiary forms lately, this might be a good time to do so). In planning the payments you will receive, remember that you are looking at a joint life expectancy, not a single life expectancy and withdraw accordingly. This might mean that you withdraw more cautiously than you originally thought you could.

Federal employees and retirees also want to look at the survivor benefit choices they have with their FERS or CSRS pensions as well.

See also, Federal Retiree Survivor Annuity at ask.FEDweek.com

Someone with a non-working spouse may well make a different decision when the time comes to choose a survivor annuity at retirement.