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  • Writer's pictureChris Stein, CFP®

Qualifying as a Spouse for Benefits

Strangely enough, there are rules that determine who qualifies as a spouse for purposes of qualifying for Social Security Spousal Benefits.  One would think it is as easy as “being married”, but that’s not quite enough. Let me describe the situation as described in the Social Security Program Operations Manual System (POMS).

Legal or Deemed Spouse

First, the person can qualify as either a Legal Spouse or a Deemed Spouse under these rules;

  1. Legal Spouse: must be validly married under the laws of the state of domicile for the spouse whose record is used to claim benefits; OR have the same rights as a husband or wife to share in the distribution of personal property upon the death of the spouse whose record is used to claim benefits. Basically one must be traditionally married in their own state, OR be seen as the equivalent of a spouse for purposes of inheriting property in their state.  As you can see, this means this determination is controlled by STATE law.

  2. Deemed Spouse: must have gone through a marriage ceremony where in good faith the person believed they would be legally married, and would be if not for some unanticipated legal issue. This occurs when a marriage is legally invalidated due to an unresolved divorce or a mistake in paperwork or procedure.  This protects a person who should receive spousal benefits from some legal technicality arising that endangers the legal view of the marriage.

Additional Qualifications

Secondly, the person must additionally qualify under one of these three options;

  1. Meet a duration of marriage test, that is basically being married for at least 1 year prior to applying for Spousal Benefits; or

  2. Be the natural mother or father of the worker’s biological son or daughter, even if that child is no longer living; or

  3. Have been entitled to certain auxiliary or survivor’s benefits in the month immediately before the marriage in question. This includes spousal benefits, survivor’s benefits, parent’s benefits or childhood disability benefits.  This is an important one for retirement age individuals. It enables a person receiving divorced spouse benefits to then switch to a spousal benefit on their new spouse’s record without waiting an entire year.  Very few people know of this alternative requirement and assume a person loses their benefits for a year until they can re-apply on the new marriage.

As you can see, the complexity in the rules makes this situation more confusing than simply “we are married.”  In certain cases, rules like these in the POMS can actually cause a person to think strategically about their current benefits situation and what it will look like after marriage.  Not that Social Security benefits should be the ultimate determinant in getting married, but if you are on the fence I would encourage you to have an analysis done like we offer in order to provide you the best information on the financial consequences of marrying now or in the future.

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