Chris Stein, CFP®
How Remarrying Affects Survivor Benefits
This week the question is from a young widow wondering how remarrying affects Survivor Benefits from her deceased husband’s Social Security:
I was married to my spouse for just 4½ years, and he recently passed away. I’m only 36, so I may remarry down the road, but I’m wondering how that will affect my claiming my first spouse’s Social Security benefits. I have heard conflicting things from Social Security as to whether I can remarry or not. I have heard as long as I am not married by age 57 or 58 (I can’t remember which), I can still collect his benefits. But I’ve also heard that I cannot remarry anytime, period, if I want to collect on my deceased spouse’s benefits.
So, here’s my question: can I remarry, as long as I divorce by age 57 or 58, whichever it is? Or do I need to remain single until then, so I can collect my deceased spouse’s benefits?
So, there are two parts to your question: first, what benefits you qualify for and, second, how marriage affects those qualifications.
Qualifying for Survivor Benefits
In terms of qualifying, two different types of benefits can be at play here: a Survivor Benefit, which is when your spouse has passed, and a Spousal Benefit, which is when your spouse is still alive.
In this case, you qualify for a Survivor Benefit once you’ve been married to that person for nine months. You would also be eligible immediately if your spouse were killed in an accident. (Not many people realize that you can qualify even if you haven’t been married for nine months).
Once you’ve been married for nine months, you become eligible to receive a deceased spouse’s Survivor Benefit once you reach age 60, or at age 50 if you’re disabled. With 4½ years of marriage, you definitely qualify to receive a Survivor Benefit on your deceased spouse’s record.
How Remarrying Affects Survivor Benefits
However, we need to clarify the requirements around remarriage. You qualify for a Survivor Benefit as long as you do not remarry before age 60. (I don’t know where age 57 or 58 comes from; it’s age 60.) So, a day or week after you turn 60, you can remarry, and it will not affect your ability to file a Survivor Benefit on the husband who passed away back when you were 36.
But then you asked, “Well, maybe I don’t want to wait until I’m 60; I’m only 36 years old. What if I want to marry before 60 without jeopardizing that benefit?” Actually, there is a slight out: if you were to marry now, and get divorced before age 60, you would retain the option of filing a Survivor Benefit on your first husband. In fact, if your second husband were to pass away, you could pick and choose between Survivor Benefits, which is surprising to many people.
However, if you were to marry a second husband, and divorce him before you turn 60, then proceed to marry him again, that could trigger some rules on multiple marriages to the same person. It could be problematic, as there are some ‘continuation of marriage’ timing issues in some instances, but we won’t address that here.
Spousal Benefits Add an Option
You wouldn’t necessarily have to get divorced because, once you’re past age 60, you’ll be eligible for a Spousal Benefit from your second husband while he is still alive. And once that person passes away, you’ll have the ability to claim a Survivor Benefit on either record, whichever one is better.
The only thing you won’t be able to do is to be married to a spouse who is living, whom you married before 60, and then suddenly go back and claim a Survivor Benefit from the original spouse. Being remarried would shut that off. That’s why people are choosing to remain unmarried until age 60.
One other thought: you are assuming you’re not going to marry someone with a more attractive Social Security benefit 24 years from now. You might be worrying about nothing. You could find that you have a better Social Security benefit from your next spouse than from your first spouse.
To restate the rules: technically, you cannot be remarried before age 60 if you want to be able to claim the Survivor Benefit on the spouse that passed away when you were 36. But once you reach 60, you can remarry immediately and say, “No, I don’t want the Spousal Benefit from my new spouse, I still want to claim the Survivor Benefit from my deceased spouse from 25 years ago.” All that matters is that you have waited until after age 60 to remarry.
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