May 7, 2019
Social Security Benefits Stump Workers
A majority of workers do not know a crucial piece of information about their retirement: how much married couples can expect to receive from Social Security.
A previous blog covering the same survey reported on workers’ poor knowledge of the survivor benefit for widows. This blog focuses on the other benefit for couples: the spousal benefit.
Social Security works a little differently for a married couple than for a single worker, whose future benefit check will simply be determined by his or her earnings history.
For the highest-earning spouse in a working couple – usually the husband – the size of his monthly check is also based on his past earnings. But his wife’s benefit is complicated. If she didn’t work, the rules entitle her to a spousal benefit equal to half of her retired husband’s benefit. If she did work, her benefit is based on her work history – with an exception. If her benefit is less than half of her husband’s, Social Security increases her monthly check to half of his check.
Only one in three of the people surveyed understood how this works, probably partly because of the complexity.
Most workers also had misconceptions about other aspects of the program. For example, only about one in four knew that a couple must be married for more than a year for the lower-paid person to receive the spousal benefit. If a couple has divorced, the lower-earning ex-spouse gets the spousal benefit only if the marriage lasted more than 10 years. Again, just one in four workers knew this important rule.
Couples of all ages should know the rules about a program they will rely on – no retirement plan is complete without this information.
The research reported herein was performed pursuant to a grant from the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) funded as part of the Retirement Research Consortium. The opinions and conclusions expressed are solely those of the author(s) and do not represent the opinions or policy of SSA or any agency of the federal government. Neither the United States Government nor any agency thereof, nor any of their employees, makes any warranty, express or implied, or assumes any legal liability or responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of the contents of this report. Reference herein to any specific commercial product, process or service by trade name, trademark, manufacturer, or otherwise does not necessarily constitute or imply endorsement, recommendation or favoring by the United States Government or any agency thereof.