The Case for Reforming the Program's Spouse Benefits While 'Saving Social Security'

39 Pages Posted: 2 Dec 2012

Date Written: December 2, 2012


The Social Security Act currently provides secondary benefits to the wives or widows of covered workers who retire, become disabled, or die. To qualify, a woman must have been married to the worker for a short period and must be old (sixty-two, dropping to sixty in the case of a widow, fifty in the case of a disabled widow) or caring for children under sixteen. If a wife’s or widow’s primary retired-worker or disability benefits equal or exceed her secondary benefit entitlement, she receives only the primary benefits. However, if her secondary benefit amount is greater she receives both her primary benefit and enough of the secondary benefit to bring the total up to its level.

Men can also qualify for benefits based solely on their status as husband or widower of a worker; but spouse benefits go overwhelmingly to women.

No additional payroll tax is levied on the employee-spouse to cover spouse benefits nor do they constitute a shift in the payout pattern between spouses of a set amount of benefits. These are quite simply additional payments based on marriage.

Appended to Social Security in 1939 and dramatically liberalized since, spouse benefits represent a discrete and increasingly problematic feature of the program. At a time when analysts and politicians of nearly all persuasions agree that the long-term fiscal health of Social Security calls for legislative revision, one might expect serious proposals for spouse benefit reform, but so far that has not occurred. No doubt, that is because any prospective reduction in spouse benefits that promised to contribute to Social Security’s long-term fiscal balance would, standing alone, quite properly be perceived as having a negative impact on women. Costly, outdated, and inequitable, these marriage-based benefits may be, but unless supplanted by some less arbitrary way to connect Social Security to families and alternative measures to assure adequate retirement income for women they cannot be got rid of. On the other hand, any package of Social Security reforms that fails to rethink and revise the spouse-benefit provisions will miss a rare opportunity to improve the fairness and adequacy of the program’s benefits for women and run the risk of disadvantaging them as a group.

The article traces the history of the provisions governing entitlement to and the amount of spouse benefits, exploring why a program addition that seemed so attractive in the program’s early years has become a source of disturbing arbitrariness and inequity and how a measure specifically designed to improve retirement income for women has become less and less effective. The deficiencies of the present system are illuminated through comparison with alternative methods of connecting a family’s covered earnings with later benefits modeled on state marital property regimes and the law’s treatment of other forms of spousal retirement income. The article concludes with a survey of the challenges, administrative and political, that would confront any serious effort to pursue so dramatic a reform.

Keywords: Social Security, retirement, family law, divorce, marital, poverty, women, elderly

Suggested Citation

Martin, Peter W., The Case for Reforming the Program's Spouse Benefits While 'Saving Social Security' (December 2, 2012). Cornell Legal Studies Research Paper No. 12-67, Available at SSRN: or

Peter W. Martin (Contact Author)

Cornell Law School ( email )

Myron Taylor Hall
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY 14853-4901


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