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How to navigate Social Security’s benefits after marriage, death and divorce

“Ask Phil,” aims to help older Americans and their families by answering their health care and financial questions. Phil is the author of the book, “Get What’s Yours for Medicare,” and co-author of “Get What’s Yours: The Revised Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security.” Send your questions to Phil.

Kate: I will turn 65 this year. I was married for 29 years to a high wage earner, then divorced. I mostly did not work during those years. I remarried at age 59. Eight and a half months later my new husband died. Based on your Social Security book, which has been very helpful, I am worried that because I remarried before 60, I will lose my divorced spousal benefits. But because my new husband died before we were married for nine months, I am not eligible for widow benefits.

I am freaking out here. Is there any help for me?

Phil Moeller: I am so sorry to hear about your loss.

Fortunately, things are not as bad as you fear. While the book is correct as far as it went. there often are deeper levels to Social Security rules, and your situation involves these finer points.

I reached out to Jerry Lutz, a retired Social Security claims expert who frequently helps me with answers to complicated questions. Here is what he had to say:

A remarriage prior to age 60 that ends in death or divorce doesn’t disqualify a person from being eligible for benefits based on a previous spouse’s record. So, since this lady is not married now it sounds like she would qualify for divorced spousal benefits on her previous husband’s account.

Her high earning spouse must be deceased or be at least age 62 or drawing benefits in order for her to qualify for divorced spousal or survivor benefits, though, and she’d need to wait until full retirement age (FRA) if she doesn’t want to receive a reduced benefit. Her FRA would be age 66 if she was born in 1954 or earlier, and there wouldn’t be any advantage for her to wait past then to file for divorced spousal or survivor benefits if she qualifies.

Furthermore, there are exceptions to the nine-month duration of marriage requirement for widow’s benefits. The most common exception is an accidental death, so if her second husband’s death could be classified as accidental, she might be able to draw reduced benefits on his record now and switch to unreduced benefits on the first husband’s record later. This assumes that her benefit rate on the first husband would be higher than what she’d get on the second husband’s record, but if that’s not the case she’d want to reverse the order. Even a heart attack can be classified as an accidental death if it was caused by unusual exertion (e.g. snow shoveling). She can see details of this policy here.

I hope this helps. Please let me know if you still have questions about this.

Susan – New Jersey: I have been reading your Social Security book as part of my retirement planning and was disheartened to learn that, after the death of my beloved first husband, I should have waited until age 60 to remarry my second chance at love. Last year I was told by a local Social Security representative that the age 60 is that magic number which disqualified me from getting survivor benefits from my first husband. This means my 28 years of marriage to him were meaningless in terms of Social Security benefits! She said that if I wanted to collect from my first husband that I should divorce my second husband!

I am sure there are other people in this same situation, where not being aware of the rules is so costly! I wish there was a way to get this information out there better for others. I am now 66. Do you have any thoughts or suggestions for me?

Phil Moeller: I’m sorry the Social Security claiming rules have had such an adverse impact on you. If it were up to me, reading our book would be a mandatory requirement, and one I’m sure my publisher would love!

The only thing that comes to mind that might help you in the future is bleak, at best, but I’ll mention it anyway. If your second husband were to die, you would become eligible for a survivor benefit from him or your first husband (whichever is larger).

Of course, Social Security does not pay out both a survivor and a retirement benefit, but just the larger of the two. So, if your age-70 retirement benefit is larger than your survivor benefit, you would not receive any additional money from either survivor benefit.

Michelle: My sister, age 79, has always had her Social Security benefit checks deposited to her husband’s account. Now that she is separated from him, she would like her benefit check sent to her directly. Her husband told her that years ago he opted for a larger benefit payment each month in exchange for a shorter period of benefits. He said that the last benefit check had just been issued that that there would be no more checks. Is he blowing smoke, or could he be telling her the truth?

Phil Moeller: He is blowing smoke — very thick and misleading smoke!
Your sister’s benefits are hers — not her ex-husband’s. Once she claimed benefits (even if her ex- did this for her), they will last the rest of her life. She should call Social Security right away and instruct them to move her benefits into her own bank account. She should have documents proving her marriage and divorce.

While she’s at it, she also should ask Social Security how large an ex-spousal benefit she would receive. If her ex- earned a lot more than she did, this benefit might be larger than her own. Please let me know how things turn out. I know that many readers are rooting for your sister to get what’s hers.

William: My wife recently had to stop working due to medical issues, and she has filed a claim for Social Security disability insurance. She is about to turn 62, and, with a declining balance in our emergency fund, we are thinking of filing for her Social Security benefits. Would it be a bad idea to do this? Would it have an adverse effect on the pending disability claim? Would being approved for disability also allow my wife to gain Medicare coverage prior to reaching age 65?

Phil Moeller: At your wife’s age, Social Security disability benefits are more generous than regular retirement benefits. If approved at age 62 for disability, her benefit would be the same as if she had already reached her full retirement age! So, it would be in your best interest to hold out and wait to see if she is approved. As for Medicare, it can take two years for her to be approved to apply for Medicare. Depending on when she was approved for disability, her Medicare eligibility might occur before she turns 65, but not by much.

Melanie – New York: A friend of mind has been receiving Social Security disability benefits for many years. She is getting divorced in two months, has always received health insurance through her husband’s work, and is not enrolled in Medicare. She is 57 years of age. What does she need to do to change over her health care coverage to Medicare? Is there a special enrollment period for people in her position and is there a lag between when she enrolls and when coverage begins? This is a person who cannot be uncovered and cannot afford COBRA.

Phil Moeller: She needs to apply for Medicare right away. A person rolling off of employer coverage onto Medicare normally has an eight-month special enrollment period, but she doesn’t want to wait that long. To avoid being uncovered, she should call Medicare and determine an effective application date that protects her.

If she cannot afford COBRA, is it possible her income would be low enough to qualify for Medicaid? If so, it would help pay her Medicare premiums and possibly other health expenses. The State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP) provides free counseling; I suggest she contact a SHIP office in her state and see about Medicaid eligibility.

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