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Social Security and You: 'I'll Tell You What's Wrong With Social Security!'

Tom Margenau on

Every single day, more than a few of the emails I get from readers start out with this (or a similar) phrase: "I'll tell you what's wrong with Social Security!" They then proceed to tell me just that. Sadly, almost always, their little rant is based on a misunderstanding of Social Security rules or misinformation they picked up -- usually off the internet.

These diatribes are of two main types: political or program-related. I'm not going to deal with the political ones today. I've come to the conclusion that it is not worth it. People will spout off the most ridiculous nonsense to me about the politics or financing of Social Security. And when I try to set the record straight, they almost always write back and tell me they don't believe me. So, I figure, why bother?

But on the program and policy side of Social Security, I still can help people understand the way Social Security works. So, let's go over some of them.

Q: I'll tell you what's wrong with Social Security. Too often, there are multiple wives getting benefits on one guy's record. A guy can have three or four or even more wives, and all of them can collect on his account. No wonder the system is going broke!

A: I suppose anything is possible. But the situation you describe is highly unlikely. I worked for the Social Security Administration for 32 years. During that time, I probably saw 100,000 Social Security records. Only once do I remember a case where three wives were getting benefits from one guy's account. I never saw four or more. Even two spouses on one record isn't as common as you might think.

And why is that? It would be very rare for a guy to have multiple wives, all of whom never worked and never remarried. In other words, lots of these ex-wives have worked. So, they are much more likely to get their own retirement benefit than a much smaller spousal benefit. And most times, a divorced woman will remarry. Once she does that, she loses her eligibility for benefits from her ex-husband.

 

Q: I'll tell you what's wrong with Social Security. It's all these benefits that are paid to women who never worked a day in their lives. Get rid of these welfare benefits and the system would be flush with cash!

A: I hear this a lot. And as I've pointed out before, every one of hundreds of such complaints I've heard about this issue has come from other women. I'm not going to touch the social debate between working women and stay-at-home moms with a 10-foot pole. But I will comment on the Social Security angle.

Ever since 1939, the law has said that a retiree's dependent wife should qualify for a partial spousal benefit. (Benefits to dependent husbands were added years later. But for today's column, I'm sticking with the issue of wives.) The law is essentially saying that because a guy with a stay-at-home wife supported that wife with his income while he was working, the taxes he paid on that income should support his wife after he retires with spousal benefits.

Q: I'll tell you what's wrong with Social Security. My wife and I each get our own retirement benefit. I get $2,200. She gets $1,900. I just learned that if I were to die first, my wife would only get $300 extra in widows benefits. And if she dies first, I will get nothing! I think when one spouse dies, the other spouse should keep getting full combined benefits.

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