In the country music world, you're supposed to “dance with the one that brung ya.” But the protocol is different in Social Securityland. If you've been married twice and the second union ends in divorce, it may be OK to leapfrog back to spouse No. 1 when it comes time to claim benefits.
An interesting letter from an InvestmentNews reader illustrates this point:
“If a woman's husband dies and she remarries prior to age 60 and subsequently divorces her second husband, can she collect survivor benefits off of the deceased first spouse?” the reader asked.
What do you think?
The adviser from St. Louis thought the divorced spouse would be out of luck because she remarried before age 60 and the second marriage, which ended in divorce, did not last the requisite 10 years needed to claim benefits on an ex-spouse's earnings record.
“She will have only her own work record to count on for her Social Security benefits,” the adviser surmised in an e-mail.
(See also: Two wives, two sets of Social Security benefits)
On the surface, the adviser's initial instinct would seem correct. After all, the general rule says if an individual is entitled to survivor benefit from a late spouse or late ex-spouse, he or she loses those survivor benefits if he or she remarries before age 60.
But in this case, there is an exception.
If you remarry before age 60, you will not be entitled to survivor's benefits, unless your subsequent marriage ends, whether by death, divorce or annulment, according to the Social Security Handbook.
(Don't miss: Two wives, two sets of Social Security benefits)
In this case, the subsequent marriage ended in divorce.
The Social Security Handbook goes on to say that “if you remarry before you turn 60 and that marriage ends, you may become entitled or re-entitled to benefits on your prior deceased spouse's earnings record.”
The handbook notes that survivor benefits can begin “in the first month in which the subsequent marriage ended if all entitlement requirements are met.”
So in this case, the widow could in fact collect Social Security survivor benefits based on her first husband's earning record because her second marriage ended in divorce. It is as if the second marriage had never occurred. So it looks like this lady can switch dance partners after all.