Social Security Q&A: How Long Must I Be Married to My Partner So She Can Collect on My Record?Commentary by Laurence Kotlikoff
August 26, 2014
Social Security may be your largest or one of your largest assets. How you manage it, by deciding which benefits to collect and when, can make an absolutely huge difference to your lifetime benefits. And those with the highest past covered earnings have the most to gain from maximizing their Social Security.
I’ve been answering questions and writing columns about Social Security each week for the past two years on PBS NEWSHOUR’s website. The editors at Forbes asked me to post a Q&A each day from those columns. To see all my columns, please go to my software company’s site, www.maximizemysocialsecurity.com, and click More Press below the WSJ quote.
Today’s question asks how long couples must be married before various benefits are available. It also illustrates how longevity of marriage before divorce can have particular import.
Question: I am unmarried but wish to leave my Social Security benefits to my partner. As man and wife, how long must we be married?
Answer: If you are married for just nine months, your new spouse can qualify for survivor benefits. And you only need to be married for one year to permit your new spouse to qualify for spousal benefits. But if you get divorced before 10 years, you’ll qualify for neither spousal nor survivor benefits. If you get divorced after 10 years, you’ll qualify for both.
As I’ve pointed out in the past, the system provides a better deal to divorcées who have stuck it out in their marriage for 10 years or more. The system permits both divorced spouses (assuming they don’t remarry) to collect full spousal benefits after reaching full retirement age, while postponing the collection of their own retirement benefit until age 70.