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Piershale: Can marriage affect your Social Security benefits?


You may want to push the pause button before taking that walk down the aisle if you’re close to retirement and counting on income from Social Security. There are some important rules you need to know to time that wedding day to maximize your Social Security benefits.

The most uncomplicated scenario would be getting married for the first time with no ex-spouse, or deceased spouse in the background of either spouse. In this case, you must be married at least one year in order for one of the spouses to be eligible for a spousal benefit. This is where one spouse receives half of the other spouse’s Social Security benefit in the case where it’s higher than their own. The higher income spouse must have claimed their own benefit and the spouse claiming the spousal benefit must be at least 62 years of age.

Now, let’s change the circumstances and assume you are receiving a spousal benefit on an ex-spouse’s work record. In order to receive this benefit, you must have been married to him or her for at least 10 years and both you and your ex-spouse must be at least 62 years of age. If you’re close to the 10-year mark and contemplating a divorce, you may want to wait until after you reach that anniversary if you don’t want to lose the spousal benefit.

If you remarry, you no longer will be eligible for those ex-spouse benefits. But you will be eligible for spousal benefits on your new spouse’s record as long as you both have reached age 62.

If you do get remarried and later your second marriage also ends in a divorce, as long as you were married to each spouse for 10 years or longer, you can choose between the two spouse’s benefits. If your second marriage did not last 10 years, you still will be eligible to collect benefits on your first spouse’s record.

The last scenario to look at is where a spouse or ex-spouse is deceased. If it’s a deceased “spouse,” you can claim survivor benefits starting at age 60, providing the marriage lasted nine months before the spouse passed away. If it’s an “ex-spouse,” you can claim survivor benefits starting at age 60, providing the marriage lasted at least 10 years before the divorce.

The critical thing to remember in receiving survivor benefits in both of these situations is that if you remarry before age 60, this will cut off your eligibility to collect on your deceased spouse’s or deceased ex-spouse’s record. This could be very expensive because while a spousal benefit entitles you to half of the other spouses Social Security, a survivor benefit would entitle you to all of it. If you wait until age 60 or later to remarry, you still can collect those survivor benefits from your deceased spouse or deceased ex-spouse. You also can let your own benefit continue to grow until age 70, and if it’s larger than the survivor benefit at that time, you can switch over to your own.

The lesson to be learned is that seniors considering marriage need to plot out their strategy carefully when it comes to claiming Social Security, even if it means, in some cases, delaying your wedding day.

• Mike Piershale, ChFC®, RFC®, is president of Piershale Financial Group. If you have financial questions about this column, contact the Piershale Financial Group, Inc., 407 Congress Parkway, Crystal Lake, IL 60014. You may also email mike@piershalefinancial.com.