Social Security Benefits Stump Workers

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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.

The program will one day be the most important source of income for millions of Americans. But they showed their lack of understanding of how benefits work in a recent survey by researchers at RAND.

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.

Tom Wright

Very true… very few people have a clear understanding of these “benefits by marriage”.

Ken Pidcock

Weekly, I receive invitations to attend presentations offering to help me to understand the complexity of Social Security claiming strategies. Typically, these are from insurance agents with an interest in having me roll over my 401(k) account into an IRA under their management. Honestly, for most people, Social Security claiming really isn’t that complicated. If you’ve always been single or are in your first marriage, it’s pretty much brainless. Nevertheless, there are many who stand to benefit from your thinking that it’s more complicated than it is.


Thanks. This was an enlightening article and that wasn’t confusing. Please author more like this that isn’t too lengthy.


That did not answer the question. If the wife worked and her SocSec is MORE than half of his check what happens?
If my SocSec is $2000/month and hers is $1400/mo what happens?
What would be her amount received in her survivor benefit?

    Ken Pidcock

    You each take your own benefit until one of you dies, then the survivor takes the higher benefit.


My wife will be 62 years of age this September 2019 and eligible for spousal benefits.
When should she apply for the benefits?

Nikita Dikshit

Hi there.

Firstly bunch of thanks, actually looking for some information on Social Security benefits & eventually, I came across on your blog.
The blog was so descriptive & complete with all necessary details of Social Security, many people are not aware of it.

Keep exploring.
Thank you


I am 58+ and have been learning from Mr. Money Mustache and the Financial Independence, Retire Early community. I looked at a site of the top 50 financial sites and decided to check out yours. This post gave me true elation since I really learned something that is a real monetary issue for my wife and I. This knowledge that my stay-at-home wife is able to add 50% of my SS is of real value. Kudos to you for sharing this so succinctly. I did not know it.

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