Stay married for a decade to get benefits

Dec 16, 2012 @ 12:01 am (Updated 5:16 pm) EST

During a gathering of Social Security wonks at the Newseum in Washington last month, I joked that perhaps marriage vows should be rewritten to raise awareness of the value of Social Security benefits for divorced individuals under certain conditions.

Forget “till 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, hang in there at least until you cross the 10-year mark. That is 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, for eight years each time. She is 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 your ex. If you wait until 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.

FOUR MARRIAGES

Andy wrote: “My mother and father were married for more than 10 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 repay.”

Yes, Andy's mother is entitled to her ex-husband's survivor benefit because they were married for at least 10 years and she waited until after 60 to marry her current husband. (A survivor benefit is worth 100% of what the worker received, or was entitled to receive, at the time of death.)

And because her ex also remarried, his widow is entitled to 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!

mbfranklin@investmentnews.com Twitter: mbfretirepro

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