Balancing Faith and Finances: A Ministers’ Guide to Exemption and Social Security Benefits

Norm Haug RSSA Staff


Ministers, pastors, and other clergy members serve their communities with unwavering dedication, often making unique financial decisions aligned with their faith. For those who seek exemption from payroll taxes through Form SSA-4361, a realm of intriguing possibilities opens up, including the potential to receive spousal and survivor benefits based on their partner’s earnings. Let’s delve into how ministers can navigate this complex landscape to secure their financial future while remaining true to their beliefs.

Form SSA-4361 allows qualifying ministers to opt out of paying Social Security and Medicare taxes on their earnings. This exemption may be granted to members of recognized religious groups, although it may impact their entitlement to benefits under their own work record.

However, even with the exemption from payroll taxes, ministers can still be eligible for spousal and survivor benefits derived from their spouse’s earnings record. This unique provision acknowledges that ministers’ financial circumstances may differ from those in secular professions.

Suppose a minister has opted out of paying payroll taxes and has a spouse who has been working and contributing to Social Security. The minister, under certain conditions, may be eligible to receive spousal benefits based on their spouse’s earnings history. To qualify, the couple must have been married for at least one year. This provides financial support for the non-working or lower-earning partner, allowing them to share in the benefits earned by their working spouse.

In the unfortunate event of a spouse’s passing, ministers who have chosen exemption can still claim survivor benefits. This form of financial assistance is crucial during times of loss. To be eligible, the marriage must have lasted for at least nine months before the spouse’s passing. Additionally, the surviving minister must meet specific requirements, such as the age criteria.

Consider the case of Reverend Sarah and her husband, Mark. Reverend Sarah has dedicated her life to her religious community and opted out of paying payroll taxes through Form SSA-4361. Mark, a dedicated professional, has been contributing to Social Security throughout his career.

After 25 years of marriage, Mark is approaching retirement, and Reverend Sarah wishes to explore her eligibility for spousal benefits. Her exemption eliminated the accumulation of Social Security credits from her ministerial service; however, she learns that she can indeed receive spousal benefits based on Mark’s work history.

Years later, Reverend Sarah faces the unexpected loss of her husband. Despite her exemption, she can claim survivor benefits on Mark’s earnings record, easing the financial burden during this challenging time.

Ministers who choose exemptions from payroll taxes through Form SSA-4361 and are or were married, may have eligibility to secure their financial future by tapping into spousal and survivor benefits. This unique provision bridges the gap between faith and finances, recognizing the distinctive circumstances faced by clergy members. As with any complex Social Security filing decision, seeking guidance from an RSSA is essential. By embracing this journey with informed decisions, ministers can continue their sacred work while ensuring their financial well-being and that of their families.


Norm Haug is Vice President of Operations at RSSA and is a Registered Social Security Analyst.


Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash