The rules that govern Social Security can be complex and confusing. While some retirees start collecting benefits as soon as they possibly can — at age 62 — many people think long and hard about when to begin and why. Does being a woman affect the answer?
In part I of this article, we’ll review the basics of how Social Security works; in part II, we’ll explore some examples of how various aspects of Social Security tend to affect women, in particular. Let’s get started!
Whether you’re male or female, the rules to earn Social Security retirement benefits are the same. Generally, you need 10 years of work experience — 40 credits — to qualify for benefits. The amount needed for one credit in 2016 was $1,260 of annual earnings. You can earn a maximum of four credits for any year. The amount needed to earn one credit increases automatically each year when average wages increase.1 Your benefit amount is based on your earnings, averaged over the highest 35 years of your career and adjusted for inflation.2
Your retirement benefit amount — also called your primary insurance amount (PIA) — is the amount you would receive if you retired at your full retirement age (FRA). FRA was 65-years-old for people born before 1938 and is gradually increasing to 67-years-old for people born in 1960 or later.
If you decide to collect Social Security before your FRA, the amount you receive will be permanently reduced. For example, let’s assume that an individual with an FRA of 66 (born between 1943 and 1954) decided to retire and start collecting Social Security at age 62, which is the earliest retirement age; their PIA benefit would be permanently reduced by 25 percent.
On the flip side: if you do not need Social Security to meet your current living expenses, and you are in good health, you might decide to delay collecting benefits until after your FRA, in order to receive larger benefits. If you are eligible for retirement benefits, you can choose not to receive them and earn delayed retirement credits (DRCs) for any month, starting from FRA up to age 70. If you were born in 1943 or later, your DRCs will likely be eight percent per year, which amounts to a 32-percent increase for individuals with an FRA of 66.3
You may also qualify for Social Security benefits if you’re disabled; if you’re the spouse or ex-spouse of a worker who qualifies for benefits; or if you’re a survivor of a deceased person who earned Social Security benefits. Let’s look at these options one at a time.
Spousal benefits are designed to provide retirement income to spouses who either didn’t work or earned significantly less than their respective spouses over their working lifetime. To qualify, your spouse must be married to you for at least one year, or must be the parent of your child. A spouse who first becomes entitled to benefits at FRA or later may receive an amount equal to 50 percent of their respective spouse’s PIA. At age 62, your spouse may receive permanently reduced benefits, so long as you’re receiving benefits. Individuals who take spousal benefits are not eligible for DRCs.4
If you’re divorced, and your ex-spouse is living, you can receive spousal benefits based on his or her work record if:
– Your marriage lasted 10 years or longer;
– You’re unmarried;
– You’re age 62 or older;
– The benefit you’re entitled to receive, based on your own work record, is less than the benefits you’d receive based on your spouse’s work record; and
– Your ex-spouse is entitled to Social Security retirement or disability benefits.
If your ex-spouse hasn’t applied for benefits, but can qualify for them and is age 62 or older, you can receive benefits on his or her work record if you’ve been divorced for at least two years.
If you’re divorced and your ex-spouse is deceased, you can receive benefits based on his or her work record if:
– You have reached age 60, or age 50 if you are disabled;
– Your marriage lasted at least 10 years, and you aren’t entitled to a higher benefit on your own record.
Note that you can receive benefits at any age if you’re caring for your ex-spouse’s child, provided that he or she is your natural or legally adopted child and is younger than 16-years-old. You are also eligible to receive benefits under these circumstances if your child is disabled and entitled to benefits. Your benefits will continue until the child reaches age 16, or until he or she is no longer disabled. You can receive this benefit even if you weren’t married to your ex-spouse for 10 years.5
To qualify for disability benefits, you must be so severely impaired, physically or mentally, that you cannot perform any substantial, gainful work. Your impairment must be expected to last at least 12 months or result in death.6 In addition, you must meet the following work-record requirements to earn Social Security disability benefits:
– If you become disabled before age 24, you generally need one-and-a-half years of work experience (six credits) in the three years prior to your disability.
– If you become disabled between ages 24 and 30, you generally need credits for half of the time between age 21 and the time of your disability.
– If you become disabled at age 31 or older, you generally need at least 20 credits in the 10 years immediately leading up to your disability.7 The total number of credits needed increases as you get older, up to a maximum of 40 credits if you become disabled at age 62 or older.
Family members who may collect death benefits include a surviving spouse who is:
– Age 60 or older; or
– Age 50 or older and disabled; or
– Any age, provided the surviving spouse is caring for a child who is younger than age 16, or a disabled child who is receiving Social Security benefits on the decedent’s record.
Children who may collect death benefits must be unmarried and:
– Younger than age 18; or
– Between ages 18 and 19, but are enrolled in an elementary or secondary school as full-time students; or
– Age 18 or older and severely disabled (the disability must have started before age 22).
Parents are also eligible to receive these benefits if they were depending on the deceased Social Security recipient for at least half of their support.8
Want to find out which Social Security benefits you may be eligible to receive? Start the process and create your own Social Security account at www.ssa.gov/myaccount.
Now that we’ve reviewed the basics and important qualification requirements, it’s time to take a deeper dive into the question we posed at the beginning of this article: does Social Security affect women differently? And if you’re a woman who is planning for retirement, how can you properly prepare for what lies ahead?