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  • Writer's pictureChris Stein, CFP®

How Remarriage Might Affect Social Security Benefits

A reader wonders how remarriage might affect his Social Security benefits.

“I’m considering getting married. I’m a 64-year-old widower, and I receive monthly regular social security benefits from a lifetime of hard work. I’m very grateful. If I remarry, will it reduce my benefits? My future wife has never paid into Social Security and doesn’t collect. She plans to keep working.”

Benefits Won’t Decrease with Remarriage

Your benefit won’t go down. In fact, there will be a net improvement because 12 months after you get married, your new wife will be eligible to collect spousal benefits on your record. Doing so does not reduce your benefit at all.

What she receives depends on her age, which you did not indicate. But, for example, if she reaches Full Retirement Age (which will be somewhere between age 66 and 67, depending on her year of birth), she will be eligible to receive 50 percent of your Full Retirement Age benefit.

You are collecting at age 64, so your benefit is reduced for not having waited for Full Retirement Age to claim. But just because you claimed early, it will not reduce her benefit if she claims on your record. Your spouse’s age is what determines the limitation on the spousal benefit, not yours.

So, your spouse could receive more than half of what you are collecting now. Some people think it’s half of what you’re collecting; it’s actually half of your PIA (Primary Insurance Amount), which is the Full Retirement Age benefit.

And, whatever the amount is, it’s additional income or benefit for the household. It’s a net financial gain.

Possible Survivor Benefits

Now, let’s look at some different scenarios. If you were to pass away before you two marry, your significant other would get nothing. Whereas if you were married for just nine months (not the 12 months required for spousal benefits), your wife would receive survivor benefits. It would equal the entire benefit that you were receiving. And, if you were killed in an accident, as long as you were married, there would be no time requirement. Having access to survivor benefits could be especially important for somebody who has nothing of their own Social Security.

A Divorced or Widowed Spouse

You didn’t mention anything about whether your future wife is divorced or a widow. But let’s look at other possibilities related to Social Security benefits. If either situation is true, she might be eligible for a spousal or survivor benefit from a previous marriage. You would want to make sure you’re not overlooking any potential benefits that might be received from that avenue before you get married.

To understand the rules, you need to know some Social Security vernacular. Being ‘eligible’ and being ‘entitled’ to a benefit are two different things. Eligible means you have met all the requirements to receive a benefit, you just haven’t actually claimed it yet. When you’ve claimed the benefit, you become entitled.

Normally, when she marries you as a divorcée – that is, she remarries – if she has not claimed her divorced-spouse benefit, she loses her eligibility for it. But say she was married for ten or more years, is divorced, and her ex-spouse is at least age 62 – she can file for a benefit under his record whether or not he is already filing and start receiving the Social Security spousal benefit.

Then, no matter how small that benefit might be, because she already has a benefit, the minute she marries you, instead of just losing that benefit, she starts receiving the Social Security benefit based on your record immediately. The 1-year wait goes away. (Social Security is not going to penalize someone for getting married.)

Any time someone is entitled (and not just eligible) for a benefit, if that person then marries, Social Security does not turn them off for the full year while they wait to become eligible again. They are immediately entitled to any new benefits for which they are eligible and can collect the spousal benefit right away on their new spouse’s record.

Incidentally, as a widow, your future wife could file similarly for survivor benefits from her ex-spouse, and it would entitle her to immediate benefits through you.

Possible Earnings Test

One last detail: you mentioned that she is working, but you didn’t indicate her age. If she has not reached her Full Retirement Age, any benefit she receives could be subject to the earnings test. (Social Security could reduce her benefit by a portion of what she earns as income if that income exceeds a certain limit.) Only her benefit is affected, not yours. And once she reaches her Full Retirement Age, the reduction would end.

Our reason for exploring all these possibilities is that couples often marry without considering the benefits they may be giving up because they never looked into them. For example, your future wife might have a bigger spousal benefit attached to her ex-spouse’s record than she would to yours.

If the difference is great enough, it might be a reason not to get married. Only by knowing all the possibilities can a couple make the best financial decisions.

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