There are more than 1,000 federal laws that benefit people who are legally married. That massive favoritism is especially evident when it comes to Social Security.
When I first started studying singlism (the ways in which single people are stereotyped, stigmatized, and discriminated against) several decades ago, one of the first experts I talked to was Thomas Coleman. He was then the Executive Director of the American Association for Single People (which later became part of the Alternatives to Marriage Project which then became Unmarried Equality). He said something like this: “I can work at the same job, for the same number of years, and make the same contributions as a married coworker. When the coworker dies, his Social Security benefits go to his spouse. When I die, mine go back into the system.”
I have stolen that quote and used it repeatedly ever since.
In my research for Singled Out, I pursued the topic of the ways in which married and previously married people are advantaged, and lifelong single people — especially those with no children — miss out. I’ll share an excerpt below. But first, consider this: if you are a married couple, you have more than 8,000 options for claiming social security.
I was reminded of the many options available to married and previously married people recently when I received an email about the book I Didn’t Know I Could Do That: 9 Financial Strategies That Can Save or Make You Money. The subject line promised to tell me about ways that marriage and divorce could increase my Social Security check. The publicist offered this sampling:
Don’t forget the widow’s benefit. If you are a widowed woman and don’t get remarried, you can file for Social Security at the age of 60. This is known as the widow’s benefit. The rule applies to men as well. If your wife earned more than you, you are entitled to widower’s benefits. When a widow or widower, or a surviving ex-spouse, waits until age 60 or later to re marry, they preserve the right to collect Social Security benefits on their deceased spouse’s earnings record.
Divorce can have fringe benefits. Women who were divorced after being married for at least 10 years are eligible for a portion of their ex-husband’s benefits if she is unmarried at the time they become eligible for benefits. That claim does not reduce the ex-husband’s benefits or those of his new spouse if he re-marries.
Marriage can be a strategic tool. When a spouse dies, the remaining spouse gets the larger of the two Social Security checks. If the surviving spouse gets remarried, he or she is then subject to that law with the new spouse. In other words, if a widow gets re-married, and her second husband dies, she is eligible for the benefits of her second husband if he made more money than her.
I asked whether the author, Tony Perrone, could answer two questions:
- Are there other ways in which married (or previously married) people are advantaged in what they can get from Social Security?
- Do you have any advice for people who have never been married?
I got no answer to the second question.
As for the first, Perrone offered the example of a widowed woman who meets a man whose Social Security check is bigger than hers. She may consider spending the rest of her life with him without marrying, but that could cost her. If they instead get married and their marriage lasts longer than nine months, and he then dies, she will get the bigger check for the rest of her life.
Here’s what I said about Social Security in Singled Out:
Welfare for Wealthy People Who Have Married
In the chapter on single parents, I ranted about President Ronald Reagan’s story about the Welfare Queen who drove a Welfare Cadillac and filed claims for still more illgotten benefits by fabricating four dead husbands. I thought it was nasty of him to stoke hostility toward the poorest people in the country, based on just one person. It was mean of him to taint the reputations of qualified recipients when their legitimate benefits were so paltry. And it was lazy and dishonest of him to make up this story of a welfare cheat who never really existed, and present it as true. If he thought there were scads of welfare cheats, why didn’t he go out and find some real ones?
At the same time, I do understand the resentment of citizens who suspect that the money they earned, then paid back in taxes, is being handed over to undeserving recipients. So here are my stories of unworthy beneficiaries of government largesse. In a tip of the hat to the 21st century, I have updated their vehicles and included men as well as women. Plus, my stories are extrapolations from a column called “Social Security Q&A,” prepared by the Social Security Administration and distributed by Knight Ridder News Service. The questions answered in the column were submitted by people who really do exist. The category names, though, are my own.
In my first category are married people who drive BMWs. I’ll call them the Eager Beamers. They lead lives of luxury and decadence, frequenting spas and country clubs and trendy restaurants and treating themselves to spectacular vacations. They have no children, no dependent elderly relatives, and never work a day in their lives. When they (and their spouse) reach “retirement” age, though, they apply for and receive government checks from that day forward. Hey, why not? Their spouse worked.
The next category includes formerly married people who have four spouses they divorced after hanging around for a decade or so each time. Like the people in the first category, they lived the good life while they were married, never had kids, and never did any paid work themselves. When they nuzzle up to their golden age, the government lines up four different payout options (one for each ex), and they are free to choose the most generous one. Their checks also keep coming until the day they die. In my book, they are the Richly Re-Divorced.
In the third category are people who do work for many years. They also marry. Then divorce. Then remarry. Then divorce and remarry again. Then do the same thing still again. When these people retire, the government sends them checks for the rest of their lives. It also sends checks to their current spouse and to all their unmarried ex’s. I’ll call them the Magnanimous Remarriers, though that is a bit too kind. After all, it is not their money that is being awarded to a lifetime of spouses.
The three sets of people I have described are today’s Welfare Queens and Kings. Like Reagan’s fake Queen, these real people receive government handouts. The payments are not called welfare but entitlements – Social Security, to be exact. What’s more, none of the people receiving the checks are cheats. All these government handouts are considered perfectly legitimate.
Who is subsidizing these handouts? I am. So is every other citizen who pays taxes and is not among the Eager Beamers, the Richly Re-Divorced, or the ex’s of the Magnanimous Remarriers. This is not my idea of family values.
I am not assailing people who have no children (I don’t have any either), nor am I objecting to lawfully attained wealth. Moreover, I value the Social Security program and do not think it should be dismantled or privatized. I just don’t think I should have to subsidize able-bodied and fully competent grown-ups who are not doing any care work, simply because they are married. I don’t think that, on my dime, people who have divorced repeatedly should be able to line up the Social Security checks due to them from each of their ex’s, and choose the biggest one. And I’m not sure that I want to subsidize the Social Security checks of a whole array of ex-spouses, based on the earnings of just one worker who did all that remarrying.
Oh, and one other thing. When the Magnanimous Remarriers die, the Social Security checks continue to make their way to all the ex-spouses. When I die, my account is closed and no one is entitled to the benefits I worked my whole life to earn.
The monthly benefits are what matters most but they are not all that Social Security offers only to people who are married or have dependent children. For example, there is also a lump sum death benefit, to go towards final expenses, that is available to eligible surviving spouses or children. It is just a small amount – currently, $255 – but it is an amount that is not available to cover the final expenses of single people with no children. I guess their dead bodies can be tossed into a ditch.
What about the People Who Are Just Like Married Couples, Except for Not Being Married?
The requirement that people have to be legally married in order to qualify for the 8,000 options for accessing Social Security benefits is obviously discriminatory to unmarried couples. They may be just as committed to one another, their relationships may be just as enduring, and their lives may be just as interdependent as those of married couples, yet none of that matters. They don’t qualify. Neither do people practicing consensual non-monogamy.
Others are left out, too. Consider, for example, pairs or groups of close friends or siblings or other relatives. They, too, may be committed, interconnected, and interdependent in every way that a married couple is, except for the sex. Perhaps they live together, and have lived together, for decades. Maybe they share living expenses, share their lives, and care for each other in sickness and in health. Why shouldn’t they qualify for one another’s Social Security benefits the same ways that married couples can?
There are two issues here. One is a matter of basic fairness. It is unjust if only some members of society, and not others, can leave their benefits to others or get benefits from others. The second is about the changing nature of the way we live. When a smaller proportion of the American adult population than ever before is married, when fewer and fewer people are having children, and when nuclear family households now account for fewer than 20 percent of all households, it is time for our laws and policies to be rewritten to reflect our new reality.
Social Security was signed into law in 1935. It has evolved over the years. It is time for a new permutation, to reflect how we live now.
This the original version of this article was published on Unmarried.org, which advocates for equality and fairness for unmarried people, including people who are single, choose not to marry, cannot marry, or live together before marriage.
Bella DePaulo (Ph.D., Harvard, 1979) is an expert on single life and the author of several books, including “Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After” and “How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century.” DePaulo has discussed singles and single life on radio and television, including NPR and CNN, and her work has been noted in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Time, Atlantic, Business Week and Newsweek. Check out her TEDx talk and visit her website at www.BellaDePaulo.com