I get a lot of emails from readers that start with some version of the phrase: “I’ll tell you what’s wrong with Social Security!” And then they go off on a little bit of a rant, almost always citing some misinterpretation of Social Security laws.
In the past, I’ve written a similar column with all the rants coming from men who were usually griping about some misunderstood issues involving the politics of Social Security. However, today’s questions all come from women with some misplaced gripes about Social Security benefits for their spouses. In each case, I will set the record straight and explain what is right with Social Security.
Q: I’ll tell you what’s wrong with Social Security! I am 61 years old. My husband is only 51. I have worked most of my life and paid Social Security taxes for many years. And now I’ve learned that I will not be able to collect a dime of my Social Security until my husband is getting his own Social Security. This is totally unfair!
A: Yes, it would be totally unfair if it was true. But it’s not true. You can get your own Social Security retirement benefit beginning as early as age 62, whether your husband is 51 or 151 … or 21, for that matter. His age and his Social Security eligibility have nothing to do with your potential entitlement to benefits.
It is true that you wouldn’t be able to collect any dependent wife’s benefits on his record until he is old enough for Social Security and getting his own monthly checks.
But you are talking about your own retirement benefits. And nothing about him and his Social Security has anything to do with you and your own Social Security.
Q: I’ll tell you what’s wrong with Social Security! I was a teacher in Texas, and I get a pension from our teachers’ retirement system. It’s about $3,500 per month. But my husband worked all his life and paid into Social Security. If he dies, I won’t be allowed to get a nickel in Social Security widow’s benefits because of some stupid offset law. This makes no sense!
A: Actually, what you call a “stupid offset law” is a very well thought out provision of Social Security law that makes perfect sense. It’s called the “government pension offset.” In a nutshell, it says that an amount equal to two-thirds of your teacher’s pension must be deducted from any spousal benefits you are due from Social Security.
Why does the law make sense? Consider this: Assume you had worked all your life at a job covered by Social Security and you were now getting $3,500 in a Social Security retirement benefit instead of a teacher’s retirement benefit. You would never be eligible for anything on your husband’s record after he dies, because your own Social Security benefit would offset any widow’s benefits you might be due. The government pension offset law merely makes sure your teacher’s retirement pension is treated the same way as a Social Security retirement pension has always been treated.
Q: I’ll tell you what’s wrong with Social Security! I just heard something about the program that is making my blood boil! I am 63 years old, and I never worked outside the home. My husband is 62, and he is still working. He doesn’t plan to retire and apply for Social Security until he is 70 years old. And I was told I have to wait until he signs up for Social Security before I can get any Social Security myself. If this is true, I’m upset. But here is what really ticks me off. I have a friend who is divorced. She is 62 years old. Like me, she never worked. Her ex-husband, like my husband, is 62, and he’s still working. He plans to keep working until age 67 before he signs up for Social Security. But my friend says she has already applied for divorced wife’s benefits and her checks will start soon! How can this possibly be fair?
A: It’s totally fair. And I’ll explain why. It all has to do with the issue of dependency—the core entitlement issue for any kind of Social Security spousal benefit.
You and your husband are still married. Because you don’t work outside the home, you are financially dependent on your husband. That’s what makes you potentially eligible for a dependent wife’s benefit on his record. But because he is still working, the law assumes he is still supporting you financially. There is no reason to pay you a dependent spouse’s Social Security benefit while your husband is still working. To put it more bluntly: Why should the taxpayers support you when your husband is still supporting you? Someday he will retire, and Social Security will start paying him a retirement benefit that’s intended to partially replace the income he’s lost because he stopped working. And at that time, Social Security will start paying you a wife’s benefit that’s intended to partially replace that portion of his income he was using to support you.
But your friend’s case is different. The law cannot assume that her ex-husband is supporting her. So the rules cut divorced women a bit of a break. She is able to get a dependent wife’s benefit on her husband’s record even if he isn’t yet getting Social Security retirement benefits himself. He simply has to be old enough to qualify for benefits. You said your friend’s ex is 62. That makes him old enough for Social Security. And your friend is also 62, meaning she is also old enough to qualify for divorced wife’s benefits.
Q: I’ll tell you what’s wrong with Social Security! It’s these deadbeat women who’ve never worked, so they mooch Social Security benefits off of a husband’s or ex-husband’s record. I’m a single woman who has worked hard all my life, and I will get my own Social Security check. Get rid of these gold-digging wives and Social Security wouldn’t have any problems!
A: I usually don’t like to touch these rants—which always come from other women, by the way—with a 10-foot pole! I’ll simply make this point: There are a whole slew of reasons why some women don’t work outside the home. And because of the dependency issues cited in the previous answer, the law has always said these women are entitled to spousal benefits on a husband’s Social Security account.