Money & Policy

Social Security: What Every Woman Needs To Know

Answers to 12 common questions about Social Security rules and benefits

For women, determining when you can collect Social Security, what benefits you are entitled to receive and how much you will collect monthly depends on your circumstances. Here's a guide to understanding your benefits as a single, married, divorced or widowed woman with answers to 12 common questions:

1. How do I become eligible for benefits?

As a worker, you must work and pay Social Security taxes for at least 10 years (40 quarters), and be at least 62 years old.

As a spouse or a divorced spouse, you must be at least 62 years old. If you are a divorced spouse, you must have been married to your ex-husband for at least 10 years and be unmarried.

As a widow or a divorced widow, you must be at least 60 years old and not remarried.

(To be eligible for Social Security spousal benefits, your spouse must have filed for his or her own benefit.)

Things are a bit murky for same-sex couples as a result of the Supreme Court's Defense of Marriage Act ruling. The Social Security Administration has begun processing retirement spousal claims for same-sex couples and paying benefits that were due. The agency's commissioner encouraged individuals who believe they may be eligible for benefits to apply for them. That way, they can establish their effective date for the start of any benefits that become available after Social Security makes its official ruling.

2. If I qualify for more than one benefit, may I receive both?
No. You will always receive the benefit that provides you with the higher monthly amount. You don't receive both benefits added together.

3. What happens to my benefit if I delay retirement?

You may receive full benefits at "Full Retirement Age."  Full Retirement Age is increasing gradually until it reaches age 67 for those who were born in 1960 or later. For your Full Retirement Age, see the chart below.

Year of Birth Full Retirement Age
1937-1939 65
1938 65 and 2 months
1939 65 and 4 months
1940 65 and 6 months
1941 65 and 8 months
1942 65 and 10 months
1943-1954 66
1955 66 and 2 months
1956 66 and 4 months
1957 66 and 6 months
1958 66 and 8 months
1959 66 and 10 months
1960 or later 67

4. What happens to my benefit if I retire early?

You may receive reduced benefits at:

  • Age 50 if you are a disabled widow
  • Age 60 if you are a widow or divorced widow
  • Age 62 if you want to retire early
If you start taking your benefits early, your monthly payments will be reduced permanently. Your benefit is reduced about one-half of 1 percent for each month you start claiming before your Full Retirement Age. For example, if your Full Retirement Age is 65 and 10 months and you sign up for Social Security when you are 62, you would only get 75.8 percent of your full benefit.
5. What happens to my benefit if I delay retirement?
You may increase the amount you receive if you delay taking benefits beyond your Full Retirement Age. The increase applies from Full Retirement Age to age 70 (see chart below).

Year of Birth

Yearly Rate of Increase

Monthly Rate of Increase



11/24 of 1%



1/2 of 1%



13/24 of 1%



7/12 of 1%



5/8 of 1%

1943 or later


2/3 of 1%


*If you were born on January 1st, you should refer to the rate increase for the previous year.

Here's an example from ElderLawNet, Inc: Jane was born in 1936, making her eligible for full Social Security retirement benefits at age 65. However, she doesn't plan on retiring until age 68. Her annual percentage increase in benefits will be 6 percent. Because she is delaying her retirement for three years, her Social Security checks will be 18 percent higher (three years x 6 percent per year). If Jane's monthly benefit would have been $1,000 had she retired at age 65, the monthly benefit she will begin receiving at age 68 will be $1,180.
6. What kind of Social Security benefit can I receive if I am a widow?
You may be eligible for a survivor's benefit if your spouse (or former spouse) passes away and he is eligible for Social Security benefits. To collect his full Social Security benefit, you must have reached your Full Retirement Age (although you can get reduced benefits starting at age 60, age 50 if you are disabled) and be unmarried. If you are raising the child(ren) of your deceased spouse under the age of 16, you may collect survivor's benefits regardless of your age or marital status. These children receive benefits in their own names from ages 16 to 19 if they are unmarried and still in high school.

7. What kind of Social Security benefit can I receive if I am divorced?

If your ex-husband is eligible for Social Security benefits, you can receive spousal benefits on his work record, even if he has remarried and his current wife is collecting benefits on his record. However, you must have been married to him for at least 10 years and be currently unmarried. If eligible, you can collect a benefit up to 50 percent of your ex-husband's Social Security benefit. However, if your ex-husband is deceased and you are unmarried, you can collect survivor's benefits, which would be 100 percent of your ex-husband's Social Security benefit.
8. How much will my benefit be?
You can calculate your Social Security benefit by using the Social Security Administration's online Retirement Planner.

9. How do I start my Social Security benefits?
Because Social Security benefits are not automatic, you must apply for them. You may apply online, by telephone at 1-800-772-1213, or in person by visiting your local Social Security office.

10. How long may I collect Social Security benefits?

These benefits will continue for as long as you live and are adjusted every year for inflation.

11. Must I pay taxes on my Social Security benefits?
You must pay federal income taxes on your Social Security benefits if you have other substantial income (such as wages, self-employment, interest, dividends, etc.) in addition to your benefits.

If you file a joint federal tax return with your spouse and you have a combined income that is between $32,000 and $44,000, you may have to pay income taxes on half of your Social Security benefits. If your combined income is more than $44,000, up to 85 percent of your benefits may be taxable.

If you file a federal tax return as an individual and your total income is between $25,000 and $34,000, you may have to pay income taxes on half of your Social Security benefits. If your total income as an individual is more than $44,000, you may have to pay taxes on up to 85 percent of your benefits.

12. Do I get benefits if I have left the paid workforce to care for my family?

Social Security benefits are based on 35 years of an individual's earnings, but a person who works for at least ten years will generally qualify for some benefits. Currently, Social Security does not give credits toward your work record for time spent out of the workforce caring for children or other dependents; only paid working years are credited.

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