Selected Research & Analysis: Demographic Characteristics > Widowed
The Implications of Marital History Change on Women's Eligibility for Social Security Wife and Widow Benefits, 1990–2009
Social Security retirement-age benefits in the United States reflect marital histories and lifetime earnings of current and former married couples. We examine women's marital history patterns and spouse and widow benefit eligibility over the past two decades, 1990 and 2009. Our analysis reveals substantial changes in women's marital patterns among the baby boom and generation X cohorts. We find a substantial decline in qualifying marital histories for Social Security spouse and widow benefits. The results reveal considerable variation by race and Hispanic origin.
This article provides policymakers with context for understanding past and future policy discussions regarding Social Security widow benefits. Using data from household surveys, projections from a microsimulation model, and recent research, it examines three types of benefits—those for aged widows, widows caring for children, and disabled widows.
Out-of-pocket medical costs are concentrated at the end of life. At the same time, poverty is three to four times more common among elderly widows than among similarly aged married women. When the possible relationship between these two facts are explored, out-of-pocket medical spending in the months before death is found to be large relative to income and could thus negatively affect the financial well-being of the surviving spouse. Simulations investigate the extent to which expansions in insurance coverage to include nursing home care, long hospital stays, or prescription drugs could improve the financial outcomes for widow(er)s.
Upon a worker's death, Social Security pays benefits to each minor or disabled child and to the worker's widow(er), provided that a child of the worker is in his or her care. Although remarriage has no effect on a child's eligibility for benefits, the benefit going directly to the widow(er) terminates if he or she remarries. This paper examines the termination provision and discusses possible effects of the provision on the young widow(er) population.
The widow(er)'s limit provision of Social Security establishes caps on the benefit amounts of widow(er)s whose deceased spouse filed for early retirement benefits. Currently, 33 percent of Social Security's 8.1 million widow(er) beneficiaries have lower benefits because of that provision. This article describes the widow(er)'s limit provision and evaluates options for changing it.
The widow(er)'s limit provision of Social Security establishes caps on the benefit amounts of widow(er)s whose deceased spouse filed for early retirement benefits. Currently, 33 percent of Social Security's 8.1 million widow(er) beneficiaries have lower benefits because of that provision. This paper describes the widow(er)'s limit provision and evaluates proposed changes to it. The proposals considered range from the modest (allowing widow(er)s to receive adjustments to the capped amounts by delaying receipt of benefits) to the substantial (abolishing the widow(er)'s limit).
In this paper we focus on an age restriction for remarriage in the Social Security system to determine if individuals respond to economic incentives for marriage. Aged widow(er) benefits are paid by the federal government to persons whose deceased spouses worked in Social Security covered employment. A widow(er) is eligible to receive benefits if she or he is at least age 60. If a widow(er) remarries before age 60, she or he forfeits the benefit and, therefore, faces a marriage penalty. Under current law, there is no penalty if the remarriage occurs at 60 years of age or later. The Social Security rules on remarriage have changed over time. Only since 1979 have widow(er)s been allow to marry at or after age 60 and not face reductions in benefit amounts.
We investigate whether the age-60 remarriage rule affects the timing of marriage and whether the elimination of the marriage penalty in 1979 encouraged widows 60 or older to marry. For this study, we primarily use Vital Statistics data from the National Center for Health Statistics.
Our major findings are as follows. In 1979, there was an increase in the marriage rate of widows 60 or older. This suggests many widows in this age group chose not to marry until the marriage penalty they faced was removed. Also, in the post-1979 period, there was a drop in marriage rates immediately prior to age 60 and an increase after this age. We do not observe this pattern in the period before 1979, and we do not observe it for divorced women, who generally are not subject to the age-60 remarriage rule. These findings suggest that the age-60 remarriage rule affects the timing of marriage and has the most influence on women who are very close to age 60.
Among older women, widows are more likely to live in poverty than married women. Thus, increasing Social Security benefits to widows seems desirable. Shifting some Social Security benefits from the period when women live as part of a couple to the period when they are widows could reduce poverty. This article uses the 1991 Survey of Income and Program Participation exactly matched to the Social Security Administration's record of benefits to evaluate the effect on poverty rates of four cost-neutral proposals that transfer Social Security benefits from married couples to surviving widows. The policies would moderately decrease poverty rates among older women by reducing the rate for widows more than the slight increase in the rate for couples. The evaluated proposals include a proposal supported by the majority of the 1994-96 Advisory Council on Social Security that would calculate the survivor's benefit as 75 percent of the couple's benefit, reduce the spouse's benefit from 50 to 33 percent of the husband's benefit, and reduce benefits by 1.5 percent.