Social Security and You: A Woman's Guide to Social Security
I'm going to start this column by shamelessly promoting my little Social Security guidebook called "Social Security -- Simple and Smart." You can get it for less than 10 bucks at Amazon.com and other booksellers. I am always referring readers who send me emails to that book because it will help them a whole lot more than a few lines I scribble into an emailed reply. And by far the most common section of the book that I refer people to is the chapter called "A Woman's Guide to Social Security." Most of what follows is an excerpt from that chapter.
Why does a woman need a special guide to Social Security? After all, almost all Social Security rules are asexual. 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 possibly qualify for benefits as a wife or widow in the same way that a man might 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 treated men and women the same way. Men tend to work for a longer period of time and have more years of earnings on their Social Security record -- in part 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, so they have higher earnings on their Social Security record.
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, that means 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 the special women's guide in my book: to help women (and their husbands) understand the rules associated with eligibility for benefits as a wife, a divorced wife, a widow or a divorced widow.
Here are some basic rules about Social Security that every woman needs to understand.
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
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. Here is an example of what that means. You 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.
The one exception to that rule 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 (assuming she is not working), and then at age 66 switch to full widow's benefits.