How women who retire with their husbands often lose out

Women who retire when their husbands do may be giving up more wealth than they realize.

Married women overall are still in their peak earning years in their 50s and early 60s, while married men’s earnings are on the decline, says economist Nicole Maestas, an associate professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School and the author of a recent study about couples’ income and retirement patterns.

As a result, married women typically sacrifice more Social Security wealth than married men when they retire early, says Maestas, who analyzed the University of Michigan’s Health and Retirement Survey of more than 20,000 people 50 and older.

In my latest for the Associated Press, why women should consider staying employed longer than their husbands.

Q&A: Waiting your way to better retirement benefits

Dear Liz: You recently wrote, “When you apply for Social Security now, you’re ‘deemed’ (considered by the Social Security Administration) to be applying for both your own benefit and any available spousal benefit. If a spousal benefit is larger, you’ll get that, and you can’t switch back to your own later.”

I turn 62 in August and recently visited the Social Security Administration to apply for benefits. I worked for 20 years and earned a benefit of $1,400 a month if I waited to apply at 66. Since I was applying at the earlier age of 62, my benefit is lowered to about $1,000 a month. Half of my husband’s benefit is $1,300 a month but I was told my only choices are to take $1,000 at the earlier age of 62 or wait another four years and take my full benefit at $1,400.

What makes me incensed is that had I not worked at all, I would be eligible to take the higher amount of $1,300 spousal benefit at 62. This makes no sense!

Answer: No, it doesn’t, and it may be because you’re misunderstanding what you were told.

Your spousal benefit is half of your husband’s benefit only if you wait until your own full retirement age, 66, to take it. Social Security benefits are reduced if you start early.

If his benefit is currently $2,600, your spousal benefit now would be about 35% of that, or $904. Since your own benefit reduced for an early start is $1,000, you would get the larger of the two checks, or $1,000. If you wait until your full retirement age, you’ll get a substantially larger check — and it will still be bigger than your spousal benefit.

Q&A: Waiting for Social Security pays off

Dear Liz: My husband (who will retire in January) just turned 67, but still wants to wait to collect Social Security until he turns 70 to maximize his benefit.

Should he apply for Social Security now, and immediately suspend benefits? Or, should he simply wait until he turns 70 years old to apply? Is there a difference?

Answer: There’s no need for your husband to file for benefits now. He will accrue delayed retirement credits for each month he delays filing, and those credits will add 8% a year to his benefit. Not only will that result in a larger check for him, but that could mean a larger survivor’s check for you should you outlive him.

Q&A: Reporting Social Security fraud

Dear Liz: You’ve written about Social Security survivor benefits and how after one spouse dies, the other gets only one check, which is supposed to be the larger of the two the couple previously received. I know a woman who is still collecting both her own and her deceased husband’s check. How is that possible?

Answer: That can happen if the death wasn’t properly reported to the Social Security Administration. Continuing to collect and cash the dead person’s checks is fraud. You can report it by calling Social Security’s fraud hotline at (800) 269-0271 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Q&A: Social Security spousal benefits

Dear Liz: In a recent article, you mentioned spousal benefits. If someone started her own Social Security benefit at 62, is there no way of drawing a spousal benefit at a later date?

Answer: When you apply for Social Security now, you’re “deemed” (considered by the Social Security Administration) to be applying for both your own benefit and any available spousal benefit. If a spousal benefit is larger, you’ll get that, and you can’t switch back to your own benefit later.

You may be able to switch from your own benefit to a spousal benefit, however. Let’s say that when you applied at 62, your spouse had not yet applied for his or her own benefit. When he or she does apply, you’ll be automatically switched to a spousal benefit if it’s larger than your own.

Before Congress changed the rules, it was possible for one spouse to “file and suspend” — file and immediately suspend an application for retirement benefits, which was enough to allow a spouse to collect a spousal benefit. Today, a spousal benefit is typically only available if the primary earner has started his or her own retirement benefits.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: 3 questions to help grow your retirement savings. Also in the news: 7 annoying international travel fees you can shrink or skip, why waiting to file bankruptcy can hurt you, and 7 ways to retire without Social Security.

3 Questions to Help Grow Your Retirement Savings
Evaluating your current position.

7 Annoying International Travel Fees You Can Shrink or Skip
Leaving your more money for souvenirs.

Why Waiting to File Bankruptcy Can Hurt You
Making a bad situation worse.

7 Ways to Retire Without Social Security
Creating your own retirement income.

Q&A: When a Social Security spousal benefit goof is suspected

Dear Liz: A family member recently lost her spouse. His monthly Social Security check was $1,800 and hers is $750. I have two questions.

First, is my understanding correct that she is able to begin collecting his monthly amount instead of her own?

Second, instead of collecting Social Security based on her earnings history, was she eligible instead to have collected 50% of her husband’s monthly benefit? If so, she was entitled to $150 more than she’s been collecting. If this is accurate, is there any recourse for collecting the additional benefit from Social Security?

Answer: To answer your first question, yes, your relative will now receive a survivor’s benefit equal to what her husband was receiving. She will no longer receive her own benefit.

The answer to your second question is a bit more complicated. Your relative may have started benefits before her own full retirement age, which used to be 65 and is now 66. When people start benefits early, they receive a permanently reduced amount whether they’re receiving their own retirement benefit or a benefit based on a spouse’s earnings. It’s possible that her reduced retirement benefit was more than her reduced spousal benefit.

Another possibility is that she started benefits before her husband. To get spousal benefits, the primary earner typically needs to be receiving his or her own benefit. (There used to be a way around this, called “file and suspend,” that allowed the primary earner to file for benefits and then suspend the application. That no longer exists.)

If your relative started benefits before her husband, she may have been able to get a bump in her check once he applied, assuming her spousal benefit was worth more than her own retirement benefit. That bump in benefits is now automatic, but if she turned 62 before 2016, she would have had to apply to get the increase, says Mary Beth Franklin, a Social Security expert who writes for Investment News.

She wouldn’t be eligible to get all the missed benefits back at this point, but she could get up to six months’ worth.

Beware of hidden taxes in retirement

Your taxes in retirement may be a lot more complicated than taxes while you’re working.

Social Security checks may or may not be taxed, depending on your income. You’ll pay federal income taxes on most retirement plan withdrawals, but additional state taxes depend on where you live. Tax rates on investments can vary as well.

In my latest for the Associated Press, what to expect when you hit retirement age.

Q&A: Social Security spousal benefits

Dear Liz: I’m remarried and don’t plan to claim a spousal benefit on my husband’s Social Security, as my benefit will be four times what his will be. My previous marriage ended in divorce at 10 years, and my ex died two years ago. How do I find out if I’m eligible to collect on my ex’s Social Security record? I am 63 and want to wait until 70 to apply for my own benefit, but I would like to retire at the end of this year.

Answer: You’ve already cleared one hurdle, which is that your previous marriage lasted 10 years. So whether you qualify for divorced survivor benefits depends on how old you were when you remarried.

Divorced people who remarry after they reach age 60, or age 50 if they’re disabled, can qualify for divorced survivor benefits. Those who remarry before that point are out of luck.

Note, please, that the remarriage rule applies only to survivor benefits. Spousal benefits are a different story. While divorced people can qualify for spousal benefits if their marriages lasted at least 10 years, the ability to get a spousal benefit ends when they remarry.

Survivor benefits are also different from spousal benefits in that you will be free to switch from a survivor benefit to your own benefit at 70. When you apply for spousal benefits, you typically have to apply for your own benefit at the same time and will get the larger of the two. You can’t switch to your own benefit later.

Q&A: The idea here is not to cheat public servants

Dear Liz: Thanks for your column about Social Security claiming strategies. Here’s a further complication you didn’t address. If the surviving spouse is a teacher in many states, access to survivor’s Social Security benefits is further restricted (if not entirely blocked) by a misogynistic, anti-teacher ruling dubbed the windfall elimination provision, which perhaps was a backlash against the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s and 1980s.

Any clarification on the windfall elimination provision’s inconsistent application and its impact on my widow’s fixed income will be greatly appreciated.

Answer: The explanation is actually a lot more prosaic.

The windfall elimination provision and a related measure, the government pension offset, were not designed to rob public servants of benefits other people get. Instead, the provisions were meant to keep those who get government pensions from getting significantly bigger benefits than people in the private sector.

The provision that would reduce and possibly eliminate your spouse’s survivor benefit is actually the government pension offset. The offset, like the windfall elimination provision, applies to people who get pensions from jobs that didn’t pay into the Social Security system. (Some school systems, as well as other state and local government employers, have opted out of Social Security and provide their own pensions instead.)

If both you and your spouse had only Social Security and no government pensions, one of your two Social Security checks would stop at your death. After that, your spouse would get one check — the larger of the two checks the household received — as a survivor benefit.

If the government pension offset didn’t exist, your widow c​ould receive two checks: a survivor benefit equal to your Social Security benefit, plus her pension. She potentially would be getting a lot more from Social Security than those who paid into Social Security their entire working lives.

The windfall elimination provision, meanwhile, applies to people who have government pensions but also worked in jobs that paid into Social Security.

When people don’t pay into the system for several years because they have jobs with government pensions instead, their annual Social Security earnings for those years are reported as zero. Because Social Security is based on ​workers’ 35 highest-earning years, those zeros make it look like they have lower lifetime earnings than they actually did.

That’s a problem because the Social Security system is progressive, replacing more income for lower-earning workers than for higher-earning ones. Without adjustments, people with pensions would look like lower earners than they actually were. They would wind up with bigger Social Security checks than someone who had the same income in a private-sector job that paid in a lot more in Social Security taxes.

These provisions are complicated and hard to explain, which is part of the reason some people jump to the conclusion they’re being denied something others are getting. In reality, the provisions were meant to make the system more fair.