Social Security Q&A: How Long Must You Be Married To Collect Different Benefits On Your Exes Record?Commentary by Laurence Kotlikoff
August 19, 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 a couple must be married before one spouse (or ex-spouse or widow/widower) can collect benefits based on the record of the other. It also raises questions about how these benefits are calculated and applied.
Question: How long did you need to be married to someone to be allowed to collect their Social Security?
Answer: If you are divorced or thinking about getting divorced, you need to have been married for 10 or more years to collect divorcée spousal and survivor benefits. If you are thinking about getting married, you need to be married only for one year to collect spousal benefits and just nine months for window(er)’s benefits. So if you are “living in sin,” consider getting married on Social Security’s dime. This is especially the case if your potential hubby is older or otherwise may pass away well before you go heavenward.
Now, please realize, as I’ve been warning readers of this column for over one year, if you are married, there is one and only one way to collect a full spousal benefit (half of your new husband’s full retirement benefit). First, you need to reach full retirement age and apply just for your spousal benefit. Second, you can’t have filed for your own retirement benefit. And third, your husband needs to have filed (but possibly have suspended) his own retirement benefit. If your new husband files before you reach full retirement age and you file for your spousal benefit, you’ll be deemed to have filed for your retirement benefit too, which means your spousal benefit will be computed as your excess spousal benefit, which could well be zero. The excess spousal benefit is your full spousal benefit (half your husband’s full retirement benefit) less 100 percent of your full retirement benefit. Given the progressivity of Social Security’s benefit formula, this difference could be negative even if you were the lower earner. If it’s negative, it’s set to zero. Even if the excess spousal benefit is positive, it will be reduced based on the early spousal benefit reduction formula.
If your new husband dies after nine months (sorry to be morbid, but you asked), you can collect reduced survivor benefits as early as age 60. But be strategic about when to take your survivor and retirement benefits since one will wipe out the other. They key is to take the smaller benefit first and generally, as early as possible, then take the larger benefit as late as possible, by which I mean when it has reached the point where its value will no longer increase the longer you wait to take it. A good online Social Security benefits calculator, such as the one my company offers, can help you determine your best filing strategy.