Personal Finance

The stakes are higher for women when claiming Social Security

How to plan around these outdated Social Security benefits
How to plan around these outdated Social Security benefits
Key Points
  • The rules for Social Security benefits were first established in the 1930s and continue to be based on the idea of the traditional family.
  • Changing marriage patterns and caregiving needs put the modern woman at a distinct disadvantage, even as they face longer life spans, less earnings and fewer years in the work force.
  • While proposed policies such as caregiver credits could mitigate these negative effects, women today should carefully strategize how they claim so that they don't come up short in their elder years.

When it comes to claiming Social Security retirement benefits, no one should take the decision of when or how to claim lightly.

And that goes especially for women, who are more likely to suffer financially if they make the wrong choice.

Social Security's rules for retirement benefits were first set in the 1930s. And they have haven't necessarily caught up with today's families.

That puts one party in particular at a disadvantage: the modern woman, according research from the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. A 2018 survey by Nationwide found that 62 percent of women expect Social Security benefits to be their primary source of income in retirement.

How much Social Security retirement benefits you receive is largely based on your work record. The Social Security Administration averages your highest 35 years of earnings.

There are two other important ways of claiming benefits based on your marital status: spousal benefits and survivor benefits. And those strategies are still more commonly used by women, according to Andrew Eschtruth, communications director at the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College and co-author of the research.

But marital patterns have changed. Shorter marriages — those that lasted less than 10 years — mean that spousal or survivor benefits are often off the table.

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Meanwhile, many women are still taking time out of the work force to care for children, parents and sometimes even spouses. Consequently, their own earnings records and resulting Social Security benefits take a hit.

"The concern comes in when you have a woman who has two responsibilities, one as a worker, one as a mother," Eschtruth said. "Those two responsibilities can come into conflict … It's harder for her to have the same level of benefits and protection of Social Security as it would have provided to that more traditional household."

Persistent challenges

Women still largely face an uphill battle when it comes to claiming Social Security and planning for retirement, Nationwide's 2018 survey found.

"Women have some unusual challenges relative to men, in that they live longer, so they're spending more years in retirement," said Tina Ambrozy, president of sales and distribution at Nationwide. "They also have issues with the wage gap of not earning as much."

Once they are in retirement, women are facing high health care costs and live longer. And their expectations from Social Security are not always realistic.

Most women — 58 percent — expect Social Security to cover all of their expenses in retirement. In reality, those benefits will only cover about 40 percent of their retirement costs, according to Ambrozy.

One reason for that: Women are spending 10 years out of the work force, on average, to serve as caregivers, Ambrozy said.

Social Security myths
Social Security myths

Possible changes

One potential change to Social Security rules that could reduce that pressure on women: Caregiver credits, according to the Center for Retirement Research.

The idea is not new. Caregiver credits are available to citizens of other parts of the world, including the United Kingdom, Sweden and Germany.

The credits could work one of two ways, according to Eschtruth. They could take away the years when a caregiver earned zero out of the equation, thus bringing the average for their highest earning years higher.

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Or the individual could receive a straight wage credit, where money that the individual did not technically make would be factored into those calculations to compensate them for caregiving.

So far, proposals for caregiving credits have mostly stayed on the periphery of policy debates, according to Eschtruth.

"The real issue is the extent to which the country's major social insurance program, Social Security, takes into account the changing labor force and marital patterns … and whether motherhood or fatherhood is expressly valued," Eschtruth said.

How to plan

Because there are thousands of rules for claiming Social Security, it is easy for anyone to miss a strategy that could give them a bigger paycheck. For women, the stakes are higher.

"Women have so many strikes against them," said financial advisor Cary Carbonaro, managing director at United Capital. "We need more money, not less money."

By actively planning for Social Security, women can avoid coming up short.

  • Start strategizing early. Claiming Social Security should not be a last-minute decision. Carbonaro said she advises clients to start planning for how their benefits will factor into their retirement as early as age 50.
  • Avoid claiming at 62. Many women assume that because they can take retirement benefits at 62 that they should. "At 62, you're taking so much of a haircut," Carbonaro said. Whether you can afford that loss is a big planning question, she said.
  • Keep timing in mind. Think about the consequences that a divorce or death of a spouse could have on your claiming strategy. You may want to push a divorce until a bit later if you're close to the 10-year mark, said Natalie Colley, an analyst at Francis Financial. Also keep in mind that you can't claim a spousal benefit within two years of getting a divorce, she said. Survivor benefits can be claimed starting at age 60 following the death of a spouse.
  • Get a professional opinion. Coordinating the best strategy for an individual — and their spouse, if relevant — requires expertise. "It's a big decision, and I think people take it lightly," Carbonaro said. "They don't realize it's going to impact them for the rest of their lives."