On Retirement

Deconstructing Social Security rules for remarriage

Separate rules for claiming benefits apply to divorced spouses, survivors

Nov 20, 2014 @ 6:00 am

By Mary Beth Franklin

I read an astounding statistic the other day: 40% of all newlyweds in 2013 were previously divorced or widowed. According to a recent report from Pew Research Center, 42 million Americans took their second (or third) trip down the aisle last year.

I hope all those recycled brides and grooms know how Social Security rules treat their remarriage. But just in case they don't, I'll review it for their financial advisers.

Let's begin with divorced spouses.

As long as their marriage lasted at least 10 years, divorced spouses can collect Social Security benefits on their ex-spouse as if they were still married (assuming spousal benefits are larger than their own retirement benefits). Spousal benefits are worth up to 50% of the ex's full retirement age benefit if collected at full retirement age; less if collected earlier.

If you start Social Security before full retirement age, you will receive your own benefits first, reduced for early claiming. If the spousal benefit is higher than your own, your benefit will be topped off by the difference, bringing the combined total up to the spousal amount, also reduced for early claiming.

However, if you wait until your full retirement age to claim benefits, you can restrict your claim to spousal benefits only and collect half of your spouse's — or ex-spouse's — full retirement age benefit amount while allowing your own retirement benefit to continue to grow until age 70. You can't restrict your claim to spousal benefits if you collect Social Security before full retirement age.

As long as the couple has been divorced at least two years, one spouse can collect spousal benefits on the other, even if the other spouse has not yet claimed benefits. The key to collecting benefits as an “independently entitled spouse” is that each ex-spouse must be at least 62 years old and eligible for Social Security benefits.

Normally, remarriage ends a divorced spouse's right to collect Social Security retirement benefits on an ex's work record. But there are a few exceptions.

REMARRIAGE EXCEPTIONS

“If a divorced woman, who is receiving benefits on an ex-spouse's record, remarries an individual who is receiving a widower's or divorced spouse's benefits, the divorced woman's benefits on the ex-spouse's record will not stop as a result of that remarriage,” Social Security spokesperson Dorothy Clark explained in an e-mail.

Translation: Marry someone who is already collecting Social Security benefits on someone else's earnings record and you can keep yours, too.

Wow! That's a handy piece of information for serial spouses and their advisers. And there are apparently a lot of them. The Pew report found that 20% of all marriages in 2013 involved spouses who had both been previously married. And 8% of newlyweds in 2013 had been married three times or more.

If a divorced spouse waits until age 60 or later to remarry, he or she retains the right to claim survivor benefits on a deceased ex-spouse — even if married to someone else.

Of course, you can only collect one Social Security benefit at a time. But chances are a survivor benefit — worth up to 100% of the ex-spouse's benefits — might be worth more than the spousal benefit of a current mate — worth of to 50% of the spouse's full retirement age amount.

It just proves that in some cases, an ex-spouse is worth more dead than alive!

WIDOWS AND WIDOWERS

Now let's talk about widows and widowers who remarry.

Survivor benefits are worth 100% of what the deceased spouse collected or was entitled to collect at time of death if the surviving spouse is at least full retirement age. Reduced survivor benefits are available to surviving spouses as early as age 60 or regardless of age if he or she is caring for the deceased worker's child who is age 16 or younger.

But anyone who collects Social Security benefits prior to full retirement age and who continues to work is subject to earnings cap restrictions, losing $1 in benefits for every $2 earned over $15,480 in 2014.

If survivors remarry before age 60, they lose their survivor benefits (unless they marry a widow or divorced spouse as explained above). But if they lose their survivor benefits, they may be eligible for a spousal benefit based on their new mate's earnings record once they have been married for one year.

And if they wait until age 60 or later to remarry, widows and widowers can continue to collect survivor benefits on their late spouse — assuming that is larger than their own retirement benefit or a spousal benefit of their new mate.

(Questions about Social Security? Find the answers in my e-book.)

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