Women and Social Security

By Tom Margenau

July 24, 2019 7 min read

Most women have a different relationship with Social Security than men do. Why is that? After all, almost no Social Security rules are gendered. For example, retirement benefits are figured the same way for men and women. Spousal benefits are also gender-neutral. In other words, a woman can qualify for benefits as a wife or widow in the same way that a man can qualify for benefits as a husband or widower.

But even though Social Security's rules treat men and women equally, society and history have not. Men tend to work longer and have more years of earnings on their Social Security records. In part, that's because women bear more of the burden of child rearing and spend more years out of the paid workforce. And statistically, men tend to earn more than women, giving them higher earnings on their Social Security records.

Those and other factors are why men usually end up with higher monthly Social Security retirement benefits than women. And because women have lower retirement benefits, they are more likely to qualify for supplemental benefits as a spouse on their husband's or ex-husband's Social Security record. And that is the primary reason for today's column: to help women (and their husbands) understand the basic rules associated with eligibility for benefits as a wife, a divorced wife, a widow or a divorced widow. Here are the basic rules.

—Your own Social Security benefit:

If you have worked enough to qualify for your own Social Security benefit, you will usually be paid that benefit first. After paying your own benefit, the Social Security Administration will then look to your husband's (or ex-husband's) Social Security record to see if you qualify for any supplemental spousal benefits on that record.

—Most Social Security applications are open-ended (see exceptions below):

SSA has a rule that says an application for one Social Security benefit is automatically considered an application for all other Social Security benefits you are due. What that means is that you generally cannot apply for benefits as a wife on your husband's Social Security record at age 62, and then later switch to your own benefits at age 66. Your application for wife's benefits is automatically considered an application for your own Social Security benefits — and vice versa. But there are two big exceptions to that rule.

Exception 1: If you turn 66 before 2020 and if you wait until age 66 (or later) to file for Social Security, then you can restrict your application to one benefit or another. For example, you could file for wife's benefits (or divorced wife's benefits) at 66, and then at age 70, switch to full benefits on your own record. And those retirement benefits would come with a delayed retirement bonus of about 32%. In other words, at age 70, you would start getting about 132% of your own Social Security benefit.

Exception 2: This exception applies to widows (or divorced widows). A widow has the choice of taking reduced benefits on one record and later switching to full benefits on another record. For example, a widow could take reduced retirement benefits at age 62 and then, at age 66, switch to full widow's benefits.

—Dependency:

This is an important eligibility factor for spousal benefits. Simply put, you do not qualify for wife's or widow's benefits just because you are or were married to your husband. Instead, you qualify for those benefits if you are/were married AND if you are/were financially dependent on your husband. To keep matters simple, the law assumes that if your Social Security benefit is less than your husband's benefit, then you are deemed financially dependent on him. This does NOT mean that you automatically qualify for benefits on his record just because your Social Security rate is less than your husband's rate. All it means is that you meet the dependency test — one of several entitlement factors.

And the corollary to that dependency assumption is that if you get a higher Social Security benefit than your husband does, or if you get a higher non-Social Security retirement pension (such as a teacher's pension), then you are not financially dependent on your husband and you cannot get wife's or widow's benefits on his record.

—Duration of marriage:

As a general rule, you must have been married to your husband for at least one year to qualify for benefits as a wife on his record. To qualify for widow's benefits, the duration of marriage rule is only nine months. However, if you are divorced, the marriage must have lasted at least 10 years before you can get divorced wife's or divorced widow's benefits.

—Multiple Marriages:

If you have been married to more than one man, you are potentially due benefits on either husband's Social Security record (assuming you meet the eligibility requirements such as duration of marriage or age). You won't collect benefits on both records. You will get benefits from the husband on whose record you are due the higher benefit.

And if you are currently married to one man, you cannot collect benefits on another man's Social Security record. The primary exception to this rule applies to widows who remarry after age 60. A woman over age 60 can get married and still be eligible for benefits from a deceased husband's (or ex-husband's) Social Security record.

If your ex remarries, this generally will not impact you. Assuming his second wife is also eligible for benefits on his record, both of you will get whatever benefits you are due. Benefits paid to a current wife do not offset those paid to a divorced wife.

If you have a Social Security question, Tom Margenau has the answer. Contact him at [email protected] To find out more about Tom Margenau and to read past columns and see features from other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

Photo credit: JillWellington at Pixabay

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