En español | Q: Is it true that women generally get lower Social Security benefits than men?
A: Yes. In 2015, the average annual Social Security retirement benefit for women was $14,184; for men it was $18,000.
Q: Why the difference?
A: One reason is that many women take time off from their jobs and careers to stay home and raise their children. During the years they're out of the workforce, women don't earn credits toward Social Security benefits. So when they reach retirement age and their lifetime earnings are tabulated, they often lack the history of steady earnings of male workers. Also, in many fields women tend to earn less than men for doing the same work.
Q: So Social Security is less important to women than men?
A: Not at all. Social Security plays a vital role in the lives of millions of American women, young and old. It provides them with modest but significant and reliable levels of economic support, often at the most stressful times of their lives. Women who work earn retirement benefits. They're also able to rely on Social Security for a financial boost if they are divorced or widowed.
Social Security helps young mothers and their children survive when their breadwinners are disabled or die. And it extends to women who have never worked outside the home, allowing them to receive benefits by tapping into their husbands' work records.
It's important to understand, though, that Social Security benefits are "gender neutral." Men and women with identical earnings histories will get identical benefits. Likewise, everything that you read in this column about a woman who receives benefits based on her husband's work record will also apply to a man who lives in a household where his wife is the main breadwinner.
Q: How else do the male and female experiences differ concerning Social Security?
A: One basic difference is that women tend to receive benefits for a longer time than men because they live longer than men. In 2012, women who reached 65 could expect to live, on average, for another 21.4 years (until age 86.4), while men could look forward, on average, to another 19.1 years (until age 84.1).
For women with few financial resources, the added years may be a mixed blessing — living longer with less money to live on. Indeed, Social Security reports that almost 50 percent of elderly unmarried females who receive Social Security benefits rely on them for 90 percent or more of their income.
Q: What happens with a married woman who has never worked outside the home or does not have enough Social Security work credits to qualify for benefits?
A: Social Security will generally pay her a spousal benefit based on her husband's work history. When her husband retires, she can receive an amount equal to 50 percent of his full retirement benefit if she waits until she reaches her own full retirement age (FRA). (For a person born between 1943 and 1954, the FRA is 66.)
If a woman takes her spousal benefit between 62 and her FRA, it will be reduced. There are special rules for women who are caring for young children or disabled children, or whose spouses become disabled. You can find more information about this in the Social Security Administration's section on spousal benefits.
Q: What does Social Security do for a woman whose husband dies?
A: Basically, if the woman is 60 or older, she can receive a widow's benefit equal to as much as 100 percent of what her husband got or would have qualified for. If she is disabled, she can get her benefit as early as 50. Again, there are special rules for women who are caring for young children and for women who remarry. For more information, check this webpage on survivor benefits. The widow may also qualify for a special onetime death benefit of $255.
Q: What happens when a young worker dies, leaving a wife and children?
A: Social Security will generally pay survivor benefits to the wife and to the children. And if the children are very young, the payments can last a long time — until they are 18 or 19 (if they're still in high school). These payments are part of a broad "social insurance" philosophy that underlies the mission of Social Security. The family may also qualify for benefits if the worker becomes disabled.
Social Security Q & A: How do survivor benefits work?
Q: How does Social Security apply to women who have been divorced?
A: Because divorce often results in financial distress for older women, Social Security permits a divorced woman who was married for at least 10 years to receive benefits based on the work record of her ex-spouse, even if he has remarried. To get the benefits, the woman must be unmarried and 62 or older. And the benefit she would get on any work record of her own must be smaller than what she would get on her ex-husband's record.
Check the Social Security Administration's information on divorce for other rules concerning ex-spouses. In addition, there are benefits available to a surviving ex-spouse whose ex has died. Details are on this survivor-plan website. For overview information on these subjects and more, see the Social Security Administration's website for women. If you have specific questions, you can speak with a Social Security representative at 800-772-1213. The lines are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. nationwide Monday through Friday, but wait times may be shorter if you call after Tuesday. If you are deaf or hard of hearing, call the TTY number: 800-325-0778.
Stan Hinden, a former columnist for the Washington Post, wrote How to Retire Happy: The 12 Most Important Decisions You Must Make Before You Retire. Have a question? Check out the AARP Social Security Question and Answer Tool.