You’re in love: Now how do you maximize your Social Security?

BY Laurence Kotlikoff  February 24, 2014 at 7:13 PM EDT
Is marriage the best way to collect the highest Social Security benefits? Photo by Juanmonino/E+ via Getty Images.

Is marriage the best way to collect the highest Social Security benefits? Photo by Juanmonino/E+ via Getty Images.

Larry Kotlikoff’s Social Security original 34 “secrets”, his additional secrets, his Social Security “mistakes” and his Social Security gotchas have prompted so many of you to write in that we now feature “Ask Larry” every Monday. Find a complete list of his columns here. We are determined to continue it until the queries stop or we run through the particular problems of all 78 million Baby Boomers, whichever comes first. Kotlikoff’s state-of-the-art retirement software is available here, for free, in its “basic” version.


Ginger — Olympia, Wash.: I am in my late 50s, a few weeks older than my boyfriend. He was married for 17 years, and his ex-wife will, I’m sure, wish to collect on his Social Security. Should we marry after a certain age? What’s the best way for me to increase my Social Security? I won’t earn that much on my own and I wasn’t married long enough to my ex to collect on his record. I do not want to marry my boyfriend for that reason — I do love him, but I might as well know the best scenario for myself. It is so complicated and you apparently know this stuff, so I hope you will answer me?

Larry Kotlikoff: First, congratulations on being in love. But being and staying in love doesn’t require getting married. In Sweden, very few people get married, but they seem to fall and stay in love at the same pace as we Americans. This said, getting married may help you get more from Social Security or it may mean getting less Social Security income.

You said you were married. If you were married for more than 10 years to your ex, you can collect benefits on your ex’s earnings record. That won’t take away from his current wife’s ability to collect benefits on his earnings record.

Indeed, if a hypothetical person, call him Joe, were 100 today and married a new wife every 10 years, starting at age 20, he’d have seven ex-wives plus the current wife — all of whom could collect spousal benefits on his earnings record. This presumes the exes didn’t remarry. If Joe dies, all eight former wives could collect survivor benefits on Joe’s earnings record provided the exes don’t remarry before age 60.

If your boyfriend — I’ll call him John — is and was a higher-earner than your ex, you’ll likely do better in terms of spousal and survivor benefits to marry him. You only need to be married for one year (nine months) before you become eligible to collect spousal (survivor) benefits on John’s earnings record.

The best strategy for you to get the highest lifetime benefits from Social Security, assuming you don’t get married, is to wait until 70 to collect your retirement benefit and to collect just your divorcée spousal benefit starting at your full retirement age (assuming your ex is at least 62 when you hit full retirement age).

The best strategy if you marry John is more complicated and depends on your age, John’s age and your respective earnings records. It’s likely that this strategy would entail both of you waiting until 70 to collect your retirement benefits and one of you collecting a full spousal benefit (for example, half of John’s full retirement benefit) between full retirement age and age 70. Only carefully crafted software can help you find the best strategy because what benefits you collect and when you collect them will affect what John can do and vice versa.


Eve — Lexington: I was previously married to a man for seven years. I am 60 and drawing Social Security now. The man I was married to for seven years was previously married to someone else for 25 years. In the event of his death — because he is a lot older than I am — can I draw from his Social Security? Or does his previous wife draw? Or can we both draw off his Social Security?

Larry Kotlikoff: Unfortunately, you need to have been married for at least 10 years to collect either divorcée spousal or divorcée survivor benefits. I have no idea why this length of marriage requirement was put into place. But it seems very unfair to people like you.


Leda Mitchell — Akeley, Minn. I am 58 years old. I was married in 1977, but my husband unfortunately was an alcoholic and decided he wanted to drink more than be married, so I left him and fended for myself. He disappeared so he wouldn’t have to pay child support. I moved to California so I wouldn’t freeze to death walking to the store for milk and supplies for my children.

I finally divorced him in 1984. I never remarried. He did, but his wife died in 2006, and he finally drank himself to death in 2009. My question is, might I be able to collect survivor benefits since I never remarried? Iff he hadn’t been an alcoholic, I would have gladly spent my life with him because I loved him; I just couldn’t let alcohol run my world.

Larry Kotlikoff: Unfortunately, you cannot because, like Eve, above, you weren’t married for 10 years.


Kathy Yost — Montpelier, Vt.: I am getting laid off and would like to collect my ex-husband’s Social Security when I am 66. I am 64 now, and am not remarried. My ex is still alive.

I am also considering marriage to my civil union partner; if I should marry her, can I still collect his benefits at 66 and delay mine until 70?

Larry Kotlikoff: No, I’m sorry, but you can’t collect spousal benefits from an ex while being married. You can collect survivor benefits if you remarry after 60, which would be your case. So, short of doing your ex in, which we don’t advise, or his passing away, remarriage will mean you’ll need to look to your partner for a spousal benefit.

You can file just for a spousal benefit at full retirement age (66 for you) and collect half of your partner’s full retirement benefit every month through age 70 if she files for her retirement benefit either at the same time or before you apply for your spousal benefit. (If she’s over 66 when you reach 66 and hasn’t yet filed, she can file for and suspend her retirement benefit and start it up at 70.)

At 70, you can apply for your own retirement benefit, which will start at its highest possible value and will likely exceed your spousal benefit. In this case, you’ll collect a “free” spousal benefit for four years. I use the word “free” because although you forgo taking your own retirement benefit for fours, it will grow by 32 percent (after inflation) for those four years due to the delayed retirement credit.


Catherine De Los Reyes — Nashville, Tenn.: I am 73, and my soon-to-be husband is 44 years old. He will be retiring after 15 years in the Army when we get married. How will that affect my check of $770.00 that I receive each month?

Larry Kotlikoff: Congratulations on your marriage. Your check won’t be affected as long as it’s not in full or in part arising from spousal benefits from an ex-spouse. When your husband reaches 62, he’ll be able to collect a reduced spousal benefit on your work record. If you pass away, he’ll be able to collect a reduced survivor benefit starting at age 60.


Jo — Westlake, Ohio: I am 61 and have been retired for 10 years from a company where I earned a yearly salary for 20 years. I have just married a man who has been retired for 12 years and has been collecting Social Security checks since age 62. If I elect to collect my Social Security benefits next year when I will be 62, and we will have been married for more than one year, how will my benefit(s) be calculated?

Larry Kotlikoff You’ll get your own reduced retirement benefit plus, after you have been married a full year, what’s called an excess spousal benefit equal to half your new husband’s full retirement benefit less 100 percent of your own full retirement benefit. This excess spousal benefit is likely to be small or negative, in which case it will be set to zero. If you wait until 66, you can file just for your unreduced full spousal benefit, which will equal half of your husband’s full retirement benefit. And at 70, you can apply for your largest possible retirement benefit. After 70, you’ll get this retirement benefit plus your excess spousal benefit.