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  • Writer's pictureChris Stein, CFP®

Benefit Eligibility

A question about spousal and survivor benefit eligibility came in this week:

My mother is 64 years old.  She was married to my father for 18 years before they divorced.  She married her second husband when she was 61.  We are all confused by what sort of Social Security benefits she is eligible to receive.  We have heard something about a rule regarding re-marriage after the age of 60, but don’t know to what that applies.”

Your mother is eligible to receive a variety of benefits, depending on a few life circumstances.

Retirement Benefits

If she has earned enough credits from her own work record she is eligible to receive her own retirement benefit. If she claims it now, she will receive a reduced benefit, but if she waits until her full retirement age or beyond, the monthly benefit will be bigger.  For details on this, refer to other blog posts on the web site.

Spousal Benefits

She is eligible to claim a spousal benefit on her CURRENT spouse’s record. Since she has remarried (at any age), the only spousal benefit she can access is the one attached to her current spouse.  The age 60 rule does not apply to spousal benefits.  Also, if her own retirement benefit is larger than her spousal benefit, the spousal benefit is essentially irrelevant as they will pay her only the larger benefit if she was born after January 1, 1954.  If she were born prior to that, she may be able to claim only a spousal benefit first, then switch later to her own.  For more info, look at my posts on filing restricted applications for benefits.

Survivor Benefits

If her current OR former spouse were to pass away, she would become eligible to receive a survivor benefit on EITHER, BUT NOT BOTH of their benefits. This is where the age 60 rule comes in.  If she had remarried prior to age 60, she would give up eligibility for a survivor benefit from her ex-spouses record.  But beginning in 1984 the rule changed and preserved the survivor benefit for ex-spouses as long as they were married for 10 years, and the remarriage happened after age 60.  So if the ex-spouse dies, your mom can collect a survivor benefit on his record even if she is still married to her second husband.

There can be some benefit in strategically coordinating these benefits, so I advise she have an analysis performed before she claims anything.

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