How Social Security should guide when you marry a younger partner

BY Laurence Kotlikoff  July 14, 2014 at 6:23 PM EST
Larry Kotlikoff explains how to maximize benefits for your and a spouse-to-be based on when you get married.  Photo by Flickr user Daniel Lee.

Larry Kotlikoff explains how to maximize benefits for your spouse-to-be based on when you get married. Photo by Flickr user Daniel Lee.

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. Let us know your Social Security questions. Kotlikoff’s state-of-the-art retirement software is available here, for free, in its “basic” version.


Kenneth — N.J.: How do I maximize survivors benefits for my girlfriend (we will marry in a few years)? I am 63 and do not need to collect Social Security before age 70. My girlfriend/wife-to-be is 52 and is not eligible for any benefits on her own. Do we need to be married for any length of time prior to my death for her to collect survivors benefits? How long would her benefits last?

Larry Kotlikoff: You just need to be married 12 months to permit your wife to receive a spousal benefit based on your earnings record. To enable ​your wife to collect widows benefits, you just need to be married nine months. Your wife’s spousal benefits would continue until you die or you get divorced, if you get divorced before 10 years. If you make it 10 years, your wife will be able to collect divorcée spousal benefits as long as she doesn’t remarry. If you die, your wife flips to being able to collect your widows benefit. If you die and she remarries, she can still collect a widows benefit if the remarriage occurs after she is 60. If you get divorced after 10 years of marriage and then you die, she can collect a divorced widows benefit even if she remarries, as long as the remarriage occurs after she is age 60.

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Waiting until 70 won’t raise your wife-to-be’s spousal or divorced spousal benefits (if you stay married 10 years before calling it quits). But it will raise your wife-to-be’s widows benefit once you die.

If you are a widower or were married for 10 years and got divorced, you may want to collect on your former spouse or ex-spouse’s earnings record for a while and then get married. For example, if you are a widower, you can potentially start collecting right now on your former spouse’s work record. If you are divorced after a 10-plus-year marriage, you should wait until full retirement age (66 in your case), file just for your divorced spousal benefit, and then at 70, take your retirement benefit.

You could then marry your girlfriend and still get her full access to your benefits because she’ll be just 59. The risk to her of holding off marrying, though, would be if you die before you do get married. That would leave her unable to collect on your work record.

If you aren’t a widower or a divorcée, whose marriage lasted a decade or more, you should A) file​ at full retirement age​ for your own retirement benefit, but suspend its collection, and B)​ wait until 70 to restart your retirement benefit. This filing and suspending won’t change your age-70 benefit, but it will give you the option of requesting a lump-sum payment of all suspended benefits if you ever decide you need a chunk of money for an emergency. Note, though, that if you take your suspended benefits in a lump sum, your retirement benefit will revert to its full retirement value; in other words, it will no longer include your delayed retirement credits.

Yes, you asked a relatively simple question. But with Social Security, nothing is simple.


Denise — Staten Island, N.Y.: I was married for 15 years to my ex-husband. He started collecting Social Security Disability when he was 40. He is now 67. I am 62 and understand that if I start to collect Social Security now and my ex passes away, I can still collect widowers Social Security. Social Security told me I could collect about $500 more a month collecting off him, but only if he were deceased. Does this sound correct? Right now I am still working, but I do want to retire.

Larry Kotlikoff: Assuming you haven’t filed for your own retirement benefit so far, you can file just for your spousal benefit when you reach full retirement age and collect half of your husband’s full retirement benefit, which equals the disability benefit ​he collected prior to reaching full retirement age — adjusted for inflation.

At age 70, you can collect your retirement benefit, which will begin at its highest possible level. When your ex-husband dies, you will receive not half, but 100 percent of his retirement benefit as a divorced widows benefit. But if you are taking your own retirement benefit at the time, Social Security will give you the larger of the two. Take note however, that they will describe this as your receiving your retirement benefit plus the excess of your divorced widows benefit, less your own retirement benefit.

So if your ex dies before you are 70 and you haven’t yet filed for your retirement benefit, the best course of action is to file just for your divorced widows benefit and then file for your own retirement benefit at 70. If your retirement benefit starting at 70 exceeds your widows benefit, your excess widow’s benefit will be zero. If that’s not the case, you’ll effectively just get your widows benefit. But filing for your own retirement benefit can’t hurt starting at 70.


Kathie — Mich. My husband died at age 43. I was 44 when he died. I will be 60 this year. Should I apply for widows benefits now? I have been working full time since his death with a salary range of $30,000 to $45,000 and am still working. Can I work and claim benefits? Does my being one year older than he affect when I can claim?

Larry Kotlikoff: You can start collecting your widows benefit at 60, but it will be reduced because you are taking it early. Also, it will be subject to the earnings test. Depending on ​the size of your widows benefit, the earnings test may wipe out your widows benefit. Social Security will, however, reimburse you for benefits lost due to the earnings test once you reach full retirement age.

But if you flip, say at age 70, from your widows benefit, which was hit by the earnings test, to your own retirement benefit, you won’t fully recoup, from an actuarial basis, the benefits lost due to the earnings test. I recommend you check out highly accurate software to consider what’s best. The software needs to incorporate the recomputation of benefits, delayed retirement credits, the earnings test, the adjustment of the earnings test reduction factor, and retirement and widows benefits. It also needs to properly value your lifetime benefits so you can see which strategy — taking your widow’s benefit before your retirement benefit or vice versa — is best, as well as when it’s best to implement said strategy.


JLT: My husband is 73 and took his Social Security benefit at 62. I am 66 and also took my Social Security benefit at 62. We had no idea there is/was a spousal benefit available to either one of us. Can I still take this benefit instead of my Social Security? If so, would it benefit me to do so? Right now, my husband’s Social Security income is more than double of what mine is.

Larry Kotlikoff: Very sorry, but you are yet another victim of Social Security’s opacity and terribl​y​ unfair “gotchas.” ​Because you filed for your own retirement benefit, even were you to suspend it right now, your spousal benefit will now and forever be calculated as your excess spousal benefit. In your case, it will be the difference between half of your husband’s full retirement benefit (not necessarily what he’s now collecting) and 100 percent of your own full retirement benefit. This difference will likely be negative, in which case Social Security sets your excess spousal benefit to zero. In short, you got cheated when it comes to getting your spousal benefit.

You can, however, suspend your retirement benefit now and restart it at age 70 at a 32 percent higher value (after inflation).

All this said, your excess spousal benefit may​ actually be positive. So it’s important to check as soon as possible with your local Social Security office to see if you do quality for a non-zero excess spousal benefit. If you do, Social Security will make retroactive payments of your excess spousal benefits, but going back only six months at most, as I understand it. So, again, do check with them right away.


Bob — Ohio: My wife of 30 years passed away a couple of years ago at age 57. I earned substantially more than she throughout my career. Can I retire at 60, and collect a reduced benefit as a surviving spouse and then switch over to my much higher benefit when it maxes out when I am 70?

Larry Kotlikoff: ​You have this exactly right. And don’t file and suspend your retirement benefit at full retirement age. Doing so will give you the option of taking your suspended benefits later on in a lump sum, while still accumulating delayed retirement credits on your retirement benefit.

The big problem, though, is that if you file and suspend, you’ll plunge into excess benefit hell. In this case, your widows benefit will become your excess widows benefit, not your full widows benefit. And from the sounds of it, your excess widows benefit will be zero. In other words, if you file and suspend at full retirement age, you’ll eliminate your ability to take a full widows benefit through full retirement age while letting your retirement benefit grow.


Karyn — Mich.: My husband, Allen, had a stroke at work in June 2013. He could not return to his job on doctors’ orders, so we applied for disability. After a six months wait, he started receiving his payments for December in January 2014. He just turned 64 in February, and I turned 62 in April.

I was advised to apply for spousal benefits to help get our bills paid. I did not know at the time that I would be locked in at a lower retirement rate. They have suspended my benefits from May until October because I still work. I have never made much money, but I have always worked. Less than $750 per month seems unfair. Should I continue struggling with just my paycheck and not take my benefits? Does Allen have to be receiving retirement benefits before I can get spousal benefits? I really need more income monthly, but I am totally confused on what to do. Any advice from you would be deeply appreciated. I do apologize for sounding like a complete idiot. Thank you in advance.

Larry Kotlikoff: Terribly sorry to hear about Allen’s stroke. I think you should withdraw your retirement benefit by repaying what you’ve received so far and then wait until full retirement age to take just your spousal benefit. At 70, you can collect your highest possible retirement benefit. If Allen were to pass away, you could file just for your retirement benefit right now and then switch to your widow’s benefit at full retirement age — at its highest possible value. There are some other options to consider, including Allen’s suspending his retirement benefit at full retirement age and starting it up again at 70. This would provide you a higher widows benefit were he to die.