We spoke with Yolanda York, a public affairs specialist with the Social Security Administration, about what women need to know regarding Social Security benefits as they approach retirement age.
1. Nothing Prevents Benefits
York stressed it’s important to remember nothing keeps a woman from drawing on her own Social Security benefit. If you’ve worked and paid taxes into the Social Security system for at least 10 years, you’ve likely earned a minimum of 40 credits and you may be eligible for your own benefit.
At age 62, whether you're married or not, or whether your spouse is collecting or not, York stated, you are entitled to your own benefit.
All retirement benefits are figured in the same way, York added. Benefits are based on the percentage of your average monthly wage using a 35-year base. If you don't have 35 years of earnings in your lifetime, you’ll have zeros — years you didn’t work — to reach the 35-year average, as Social Security uses a formula to determine your monthly benefits. And the more income you put into your Social Security, York stated, the higher your monthly benefit will be.
2. There is No Marriage Penalty
York said this means there is no limit to benefits paid to a married couple. If you're married and you and your spouse have worked and earned enough credits individually, you will each get your own Social Security benefits.
For example, the maximum Social Security benefit in 2018 is $2,788. If someone worked making maximum wages for the last 30 years, they are entitled to $2,788.
“$2,788 times two is $5,576 that your household would be receiving from Social Security,” York said. “If you decided not to take Social Security at full retirement age and waited until … age 70, that $2,788 would grow to $3,680. And if both you and your spouse waited until 70 to start collecting Social Security, the household would be receiving $7,360 per month. … There is this misconception that we can’t draw that amount because there is a maximum. It's a maximum per person.”
3. If You Qualify for Two Benefits, You Only Receive the Higher Rate
If you qualify for your own Social Security benefit, as well as a spouse’s benefit, you can only draw one benefit, whichever is higher.
Of the $2,788 maximum, York noted, a spouse is entitled to receive 50 percent. So a woman not drawing her own benefit would be entitled to $1,394. The husband would receive his full benefit. York pointed out that for some this amount might be greater than what you’ve accrued yourself, so it’s worth checking.
In addition, if your spouse decides to delay drawing on Social Security until age 70, you can switch later and draw on that greater amount. If your husband is waiting until 70, and you both turned 62 prior to January 2, 2016, he can get 50 percent of your benefit in the meantime.
“If you’re getting $1,000 dollars, he's going to get $500 a month off of your record,” York said. “At 70, he now turns off that $500 and collects his full delayed retirement credit, and then you can go and get that extra percentage that you’re entitled to off of his record.”
4. Divorce After 10 Years of Marriage
If you were married but have now been divorced for at least 10 years, and are at least age 62, you may be entitled to benefits based on your spouse’s Social Security account, even though he has not yet filed for Social Security benefits.
As long as you can produce a marriage certificate, a divorce certificate, his birth certificate to document that he’s at least 62, and your birth certificate, you can collect benefits.
“That would only be 37 percent at 62, but you would be eligible for spousal benefits,” York said. “If you’re entitled to get Social Security on your own record at 62, you would first have to take it, and then any additional benefits would come from his record. If you remarried before age 60, then you’re not able to do this.”
5. Widow’s Benefits
If a marriage ends in death and you've been married for at least nine months, you're also entitled to benefits, York stated.
This amounts to 71 percent of what your spouse would be entitled to receive at age 60. If you wait until full retirement age, then you would be entitled to 100 percent of what your spouse collected before he died, York added.
If you are a widow at age 60, you can draw 71 percent of your deceased spouse's benefit and delay collecting your own Social Security until 70. By then, you will have accrued these delayed retirement credits, and then you could switch over to your own benefits.
“If you are a married couple, it is really wise to think about when you're going to start receiving those benefits,” York said. “It may be that you might just wait until you’ve earned those delayed retirement credits, because your spouse will inherit that, and that is a huge number. … We are living so much longer. We have 40,000 people right now in the United States collecting Social Security that are over 100 years old. So you really have to ask if you have longevity on your side when you're making these decisions.”