Social Security and Women

November 6, 2020 Updated: November 9, 2020

I really don’t have any way of knowing this, but I’m guessing the majority of my readers are women. And that guess is based on the fact that I get far more emails from women than from men. Today’s column has questions covering a variety of topics from some of my female fans.

Q: I just turned 62 and am not working. My husband was a mental abuser throughout our marriage. Now that we are divorced, he says I will never be able to get any of his Social Security because he knows a way around the laws. Is there anything he can do to keep me from getting part of his Social Security?

A: Gosh, what a jerk! Don’t worry. There is absolutely nothing he can do that will prevent you from getting any benefits you might be due. Assuming you are not due higher benefits on your own record, then once he turns 62, you can file for divorced wives benefits on his account. If you feel inclined to give Mr. Wonderful some good news, tell him that if you get benefits on his record, it doesn’t take a dime away from whatever he is due from Social Security.

Q: I am a widow who is about to turn 66. I’m still working. I’m planning to file for my own slightly higher retirement benefits and let the widows benefits continue to grow at 8 percent per year and file for those at 70. Is that a good plan?

A: It’s a bad plan. In fact, it’s an unworkable plan. The 8 percent per year benefit growth only applies to retirement benefits. Except for annual cost-of-living adjustments, widows benefits do not increase after full retirement age. So, you need to do just the opposite of what you are planning. You should file for widows benefits now, and at 70, switch to 132 percent of your own retirement benefit.

Q: When my husband died, I got half of his Social Security, and his first wife got the other half. Now she has died. Will I get her half added to mine?

A: Sorry, but you’ve got things all mixed up. A widow does not get a 50 percent rate. She gets anywhere between about 70 percent and 100 percent, depending on her age at the time she files for widows benefits. Also, two widows on one Social Security account do not offset each other. So, when your husband died, you started getting whatever you were due (again, between 70 percent and 100 percent), and his first wife started getting whatever she was due. And now that she’s died, her benefit just stops, and nothing changes for you.

Q: I’ve always been told that a wife gets half of her husband’s Social Security. But I’m getting nowhere near that. My husband gets $1,850, and I only get $740.

A: This is probably the most common question I get from women. The 50 percent spousal rate applies to a woman who waits until her full retirement age to start her benefits. But I will bet my next Social Security check that you started your benefits somewhere between age 62 and 63. And that’s why you are getting a smaller amount. The rate for spousal benefits can be as low as about 33 percent if they are taken at age 62.

Q: My husband died last year, but my benefit never changed. (Mine was always slightly more than his.) But I know lots of widows who tell me they are getting both their own Social Security and widows benefits from their husband. Why is that?

A: The women who get Social Security from their own account and their husband’s account are women who have a very small Social Security check on their own. But if a woman’s own Social Security is more than her husband’s rate, she will only get her own. Here is a quick example of how that works.

Mary’s own Social Security benefit is $1,200 per month. Her widow’s rate is $2,000 per month. So, she will get her own $1,200, and she will get $800 in widows benefits to take her up to the $2,000 widow’s level.

Jane’s own Social Security benefit is $2,400 per month. Her widow’s rate is $1,800 per month. She will just get her own $2,400 benefit because it pays more than her $1,800 widow’s rate.

Q: How come women can’t get Social Security disability benefits? I’m 60 years old and have fibromyalgia and other medical problems. When I called to apply for Social Security disability benefits, I was told I didn’t work enough. But I worked for about 20 years before and shortly after I got married. Then I stopped working to raise my kids. So, isn’t 20 years enough time to get Social Security?

A: It’s enough time to get Social Security retirement benefits, which you will be eligible for at age 62. But there are special rules for disability benefits that say you must have worked and paid Social Security taxes in five out of the last 10 years. It sounds like you don’t meet the “five out of the last 10” requirement, so you are just not eligible for disability benefits. And by the way, the same rules apply to women and men.

Q: I get my own Social Security check. They say I can’t get any of my husband’s Social Security because my own benefit is more than half of his. But I think I should get both. I worked most of my life, but I also was a wife. So, I should get my own benefit and a spousal benefit!

A: As a general rule, whenever you are due two benefits, you don’t get both. You only get the one that pays the higher rate. So that’s why you just get your own retirement benefits.

And if you think you should get both your own Social Security AND a spousal benefit on your husband’s record, then wouldn’t you agree that everyone should be treated the same? So, can I get my own Social Security check and a spousal benefit on my wife’s record? After all, I worked most of my life, but I was also a husband. For that matter, should we pay Warren Buffett his own Social Security check and a husband’s benefit on his wife’s record? I hope you see where I’m going with this. If we paid everybody who has ever been married his or her own benefit AND a spousal benefit, the system would go belly up in a couple of months.

Tom Margenau worked for 32 years in a variety of positions for the Social Security Administration before retiring in 2005. He has served as the director of SSA’s public information office, the chief editor of more than 100 SSA publications, a deputy press officer and spokesman, and a speechwriter for the commissioner of Social Security. For 12 years, he also wrote Social Security columns for local newspapers. If you have a Social Security question, contact him at thomas.margenau@comcast.net.