During a recent gathering of Social Security wonks at the Newseum in Washington, DC, last month, I joked that perhaps marriage vows should be rewritten to raise awareness about the value of Social Security benefits for divorced individuals under certain conditions.
Forget 'til death do us part. After all, about half of all marriages end in divorce. But if you can't make it for the long haul, at least hang in there until you cross the ten-year mark. That's how long a marriage has to last in order for you to collect Social Security benefits on your ex. I hope divorce attorneys everywhere heed this message.
Case in point: I have a girlfriend who was married twice, both times for eight years each. She's out of luck.
In addition to being married for at least 10 years, you must be unmarried to collect spousal benefits on your ex (even if you were subsequently married as long as that union ended in either death or divorce). But there's one exception when it comes to collecting survivor benefits on you ex. If you wait until age 60 or later to remarry, you can still collect your ex's survivor benefit if that would create a bigger benefit than collecting spousal benefits based on your current spouse's earnings record. You can't collect on both.
Recently, I realized that this exception deserves more than a footnote when I received an e-mail from an adviser in Alabama. Sometimes fact is stranger than fiction.
Andy wrote: “My mother and father were married for more than ten years before divorcing. Unfortunately, she married and divorced three more times. She married her fourth husband right after turning 60 last year. My father remarried only once and passed away this year. My mother received a letter from Social Security saying she may be eligible for a survivor benefit and is now receiving my father's check. Is this correct? I don't want them to say they made a mistake and make her re-pay. “
Yes, Andy's mother is entitled to her ex-husband's survivor benefit because they were married for at least ten years and she waited until after age 60 to marry her current husband. ( A survivor benefit is worth 100% of what the worker received, or was entitled to received, at the time of death). And because her ex also remarried, his widow is entitled the same survivor benefit, too. They don't have to share the benefit. They each are entitled to the full amount.
I can't make this stuff up!