The Woman’s Guide To Collecting Social Security

Michael Burrell /

Although Social Security is meant to cover all workers equally based on their work record, there are special provisions that can often apply to women. As men are still more likely to earn more than women, and as women are more likely than men to be non-working spouses, it’s important for women to be aware of how they can maximize their Social Security benefits.

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For example, in addition to the standard retirement benefit that any eligible worker can claim, just by virtue of being a spouse, even a non-working one, you may qualify for your own Social Security payout. As the nuances of Social Security can be complicated, you may want to consult a tax advisor or financial planner about your various options for claiming benefits. But here’s a quick overview of benefits that women, in particular, should not overlook when it comes to claiming Social Security.

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Even If You’ve Never Worked, You Might Be Entitled to a Social Security Retirement Benefit

One of the ways that Social Security protects non-working spouses is by providing a spousal benefit. This can amount to as much as 50% of the benefit that your spouse earns, as long as you wait to claim your benefit until you reach full retirement age. 

To determine the retirement benefit that you’ll receive, the Social Security Administration first examines your own work record. Then, it compares your personal benefit with the spousal benefit you’re entitled to. Whichever benefit is greater is the one you will receive.

It’s worth discussing a Social Security claiming strategy with your spouse and even your tax or financial advisor before you get too close to retirement. If your spouse were to claim benefits at age 62, for example, their lifelong monthly payout would shrink by 30%. Since your spousal benefit is tied directly to the amount your spouse receives, this means that your payout would also be reduced by 30%. To maximize your joint benefits, you’ll want to plan a strategy ahead of time.

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You Might Get a Spousal Retirement Benefit Even If You’re Divorced

Although the term “spousal benefit” would seem to imply that you have to be married to receive it, that’s not always the case. If you were married at least 10 years to your spouse before you got divorced and aren’t remarried, you’re entitled to the same spousal benefit as if you were married. Again, this can amount to up to 50% of your ex-spouse’s benefit, as long as you wait until your full retirement age to claim it.

If Your Spouse (or Ex) Dies, You May Be Entitled to a Widow’s Benefit

If you’re living with your spouse when they die, you’re entitled to an immediate $255 payout from the Social Security Administration. However, you’re also entitled to an ongoing widow’s benefit based on the amount that your spouse was earning at the time of their death. At age 60, you’re entitled to a benefit equal to 71% of your spouse’s previous benefit or 100% at full retirement age. The Social Security Administration will first pay you the benefit that you yourself are entitled to, and then it will supplement that amount with your widow’s benefit. If you’re divorced, you’re entitled to this widow’s benefit, also known as the survivor’s benefit if your ex-spouse dies and you were married for at least 10 years before you divorced.

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You’ll Likely Need Supplemental Retirement Savings in Addition to Social Security

Even with all of the strides women have made in the workplace, the sad truth is that they still don’t earn anywhere close to what men do. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of 2020, women’s annual earnings were just 82.3% of men’s. Not only does this impact lifelong earnings, but it also reduces Social Security benefits. If your spouse’s work record qualified him for a $2,000 monthly benefit, for example, your benefit, on average, would only hit $1,646. This means that it’s even more important for you to save and invest more of your salary while you’re working. 

As of January 2022, monthly Social Security retirement benefits only average $1,657. This amounts to a scant $19,884 per year, which isn’t enough for most people to live on. If you’re only earning 82.3% of that benefit, things get even tougher. Plus, as a woman, you’re likely to live longer, and will therefore need a larger nest egg as well. But if you know and understand this ahead of time, you’ll be able to plan ahead, boost your savings rate and invest enough over your working career to make up for this shortfall.

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About the Author

After earning a B.A. in English with a Specialization in Business from UCLA, John Csiszar worked in the financial services industry as a registered representative for 18 years. Along the way, Csiszar earned both Certified Financial Planner and Registered Investment Adviser designations, in addition to being licensed as a life agent, while working for both a major Wall Street wirehouse and for his own investment advisory firm. During his time as an advisor, Csiszar managed over $100 million in client assets while providing individualized investment plans for hundreds of clients.
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