Retirement 2.0blog

Two wives, two sets of Social Security benefits

Current and ex-spouses don't have to share survivor benefits

Mar 6, 2014 @ 12:01 am

By Mary Beth Franklin

Thank you to the more than 2,500 listeners who tuned in to my Social Security Bootcamp webcast on Tuesday. If you missed it, or want to review it, an archived version of the webcast is available. Click here to access it.

In the meantime, I'll try to plow through the more than 365 questions that I received from InvestmentNews readers before and during the webcast.

One reader asked if she would have to share Social Security survivor benefits with her husband's ex-wife if he predeceases them.

The reader is the younger, second wife of a retirement-age husband. She is 48 years old and her husband is 66. He and his first wife were married for more than 30 years and have been divorced for 14 years. His ex-wife did not remarry.

(Don't miss: Hurried trip down the aisle nixes widow's survivor benefits)

In an e-mail, the reader explained that her husband was recently diagnosed with a medical condition that could shorten his life expectancy.

“I understand that I have many years until I can file for benefits,” she wrote. “But do you know if my husband's ex-wife and I will have to split my husband's survivor's benefits or do we both get the full amount?”

I assured the reader that if her husband were to die, both she and his ex-wife would each receive full survivor benefits, assuming the ex-wife had not remarried.

(What's the most commonly asked Social Security question?)

But because of her age, the younger, second wife may have to wait many years before she can collect survivor benefits.

If the husband were to die today, the first wife could collect survivor benefits equal to 100% of the monthly retirement benefits that he received during his lifetime, assuming she is at least full retirement age — 66 — when she begins collecting benefits. Her own smaller retirement benefit would disappear at that point.

If she collected survivor benefits before her full retirement age, the amount would be reduced.

Widows and surviving divorced spouses who have not remarried can collect Social Security survivor benefits as early as age 60, but their benefit would be reduced to just 71.5% of what the deceased worker collected. So the young widow would have to wait until she turned 60 to collect survivor benefits.

But there is an exception for widows or widowers who are caring for the minor children of the deceased worker.

A surviving spouse, regardless of age, can collect a survivor benefit equal to 75% of the deceased worker's retirement benefit if she is caring for the deceased's minor child who is under age 16. The child is also entitled to a survivor benefit equal to 75% of the deceased parent's retirement benefit until the child turns 18, or up to age 19 if still in high school.

But there is a limit to the amount that family members can receive each month. The limit varies, but it is generally equal to about 150% to 180% of the worker's basic benefit rate. If the sum of the benefits payable to family members is greater than this limit, the benefits will be reduced proportionately.

Any benefits paid to a surviving divorced spouse won't count toward this family maximum amount.

And as long as they wait until 60 or later to remarry, both women could continue to collect their survivor benefits.

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