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Social Security: What Every Woman Should Know

What Social Security Means to You

Social Security plays an especially important role in providing economic security for women. Nearly 55 percent of the people receiving Social Security benefits are women. In the 21st century, more women work, pay Social Security taxes, and earn credit toward monthly retirement income than at any other time in our nation’s history.

Women face greater economic challenges in retirement. First, women tend to live longer than men. A woman who is 65 years old today can expect to live, on average, until about 87, while a 65-year-old man can expect to live, on average, until about 84. Second, women often have lower lifetime earnings than men. And, third, women may reach retirement with smaller pensions and other assets than men. Social Security provides an inflation-protected benefit that lasts as long as you live.

Social Security benefits are based on how long you’ve worked, how much you’ve earned, and when you start taking benefits.

You can outlive your savings and investments, but you can never outlive your Social Security benefit. Social Security is the foundation for a secure retirement, but on average, only replaces about 40 percent of pre-retirement earnings. To have a comfortable retirement, you will also need other income like pensions, savings, and investments.

Today, women have challenging choices to make. Some may spend their entire adulthood in a career or job outside the home. Some may work for a few years, leave the labor force to raise children, and eventually return to work. Others may choose not to work outside the home. Whether they work, have worked, or have never worked, women must understand how Social Security can help them and their families. 

Women tend to care for many people — spouses, children, and parents. And, although they’ve made significant strides, women are more likely to earn less during their lifetimes than men. They’re less often covered by private retirement plans and more dependent on Social Security — and for a longer period of time since, on average, women live about five years longer than men.

Social Security offers a basic level of protection to all women covered by this program. When women work, they pay taxes into the Social Security system, providing for their own benefits. In addition, their spouses’ earnings can give them Social Security coverage as well. Women who don’t work are often covered through their spouses’ work and can receive benefits when they retire, become disabled, or die.

Over the years, the level of Social Security protection for women has been strengthened. For example, the amount of benefits for a surviving spouse was raised, and benefits for disabled spouses also increased. Economic protection for divorced women improved with the removal of the requirement that the divorced wife be dependent on her spouse. Also, the number of years the couple must be married for the divorced spouse to qualify for benefits decreased.

In addition to understanding the benefits to which they may be entitled, women also need to be aware of other aspects of the Social Security program. They need to know about providing Social Security coverage for anyone they may hire as a household worker or childcare provider. And, they need to know some basics, such as what to do if they change their names.

Social Security is a vital program, especially for women, but it was never intended to cover all of their financial needs. To live comfortably, everyone needs to plan accordingly. Living within one’s means and saving for the future are big parts of that plan.

Find out more on What Every Woman Should Know from ssa.gov.

If You Change Your Name

Whenever you change your name, be sure to report the change to Social Security. Otherwise, your earnings may not be recorded properly and you may not receive all the benefits you are due. Not changing your name with Social Security can also delay your income tax refund, if you are entitled to one. To report a name change, fill out an Application for a Social Security Card (Form SS-5). You can get the form online by visiting www.socialsecurity.gov, at any Social Security office, or by calling Social Security’s toll-free number, 1-800-772-1213. You must show us proof of your legal name change. Documents Social Security may accept to prove a legal name change include: 

  • Marriage document;
  • Divorce decree;
  • Certificate of Naturalization showing a new name; or
  • Court order for a name change.

Note: The document must be the original document, not a photocopy.

If the document you provide as evidence of a legal name change doesn’t give us enough information to identify you in our records, or if you changed your name more than two years ago (four years ago if you’re younger than age 18), you must show us an identity document in your old name (as shown in our records). We’ll accept an identity document in your old name that has expired.

If you don’t have an identity document in your old name, we may accept an unexpired identity document in your new name, as long as we can properly establish your identity in our records.

If you’re a U.S. citizen born outside the United States, and our records don’t show you’re a citizen, you’ll need to provide proof of your U.S. citizenship. If you aren’t a U.S. citizen, Social Security will ask to see your current immigration documents.

The new card will have the same number as your previous card, but will show your new name.

Find out more on What Every Woman Should Know from ssa.gov.

If you Become Disabled

If you become disabled, you may be able to get disability benefits if you’ve worked long enough and recently enough under Social Security. The amount of work you need increases with age. You need credit for one and one-half years of work out of the past three years if you become disabled before age 24, and up to five out of the last 10 years if you become disabled at age 31 or older. Some women lose their disability coverage when they move in and out of the workforce and, as a result, don’t meet the recent work requirement. If you need help figuring out how much work you need to maintain your disability coverage, call your local Social Security office.

You will be considered disabled if you can’t do the work you did before and we decide you can’t adjust to other work because of your medical condition(s). Your disability also must last, or be expected to last, for at least a year or to result in death. After you receive disability payments for 24 consecutive months, you’ll also have Medicare protection.

Military service members can receive expedited processing of disability claims from Social Security. Social Security benefits are different from those available through the Department of Veterans Affairs and require a separate application. We use an expedited process for military service members who became disabled while on active military service on or after October 1, 2001, regardless of where the disability occurs.

For more information on disability programs, visit www.socialsecurity.gov/disability or ask for Disability Benefits (Publication No. 05-10029). For more information on disability benefits for wounded warriors, visit www.socialsecurity.gov/woundedwarriors or ask for Disability Benefits for Wounded Warriors (Publication No. 05-10030).

Find out more on What Every Woman Should Know from ssa.gov.

When You're Ready To Apply

Online Services

You can apply for Social Security retirement, disability, Medicare, or spouse’s benefits, or any combination of those benefits online. You’ll complete and sign the application electronically. We’ll let you know which benefits you are entitled to after we receive your application.

Electronic Payments

You may receive your benefits through direct deposit, a Direct Express® card, or an electronic transfer account. These electronic options provide simple, safe, and secure ways to receive your benefits. For more information about these options, please visit www.godirect.org or call 1-800-333-1795. When you apply for benefits, have your checkbook or banking account statement on hand if you want direct deposit. We need that information to deposit your benefit into your account correctly.

Find out more on What Every Woman Should Know from ssa.gov.