I got to chatting with someone about 30 years younger than me the other day at our local library. We were sharing stories about our lives and careers and families. He expressed surprise at two elements of my life that I just thought of as sort of normal. I told him I had worked for the Social Security Administration for about 33 years. And I also mentioned that my wife and I recently celebrated our 45th wedding anniversary. He told me that younger people no longer work at the same job for more than five years. And he said he didn’t know anyone who had been married to the same person for more than 15 years.
Of course those are just one person’s observations. I have no idea if they are indicative of today’s lifestyles. But when I got home and opened up my email folder, just coincidentally, the first batch of mail I read came from folks who were married more than once and had questions about how that impacted their Social Security. Here they are.
Q: I am 62 years old, and I am thinking about retiring. I will have my own Social Security. But it’s not much, only about $1,100. I was married four times. I was married to Husband 1 for only two years before we divorced. My second husband and I were married for 15 years until he died.
My children got survivor’s benefits on his record until they were in college. I was married to a third man for 11 years and then we got a divorce. I married my fourth husband in 2009, and he died three years ago. What are my chances of getting Social Security from any of these husbands?
A: Well, you certainly have some potential Social Security choices, especially with husbands two and four. You can forget about husband one. You weren’t married to him long enough. And as long as husband number three is alive, you won’t get anything from his Social Security because the benefit rate payable to a wife (or ex-wife) is much less than the rate payable to a widow.
So that brings us to your second and fourth husbands. In a nutshell, you’d be due widow’s benefits off the account of whichever one of these guys had the higher Social Security benefit. (You can’t get both. Just the one that pays the most.) But then we mix in your own Social Security retirement and that opens up even more possibilities. You could employ the “take one now and save the other for later” option that widows have. For example, if you think you could live on that $1,100 reduced retirement benefit for a few years, then at age 66 you could switch to a 100 percent widow’s benefit from either husband two or four. You’ll need to talk to the Social Security people about all these choices.
Q: My wife and I are both turning 62 and thinking about Social Security. She and I are both on our second marriages. We have been married for 21 years. Her first husband died. I am divorced from my first wife after a 15-year marriage. We are just curious: Can either of us claim any Social Security benefits from our first spouses?
A: Not at this time. As long as you are married to each other, neither of you are due any Social Security benefits from an ex-spouse’s account. But if your marriage ends, through death or divorce, then there is a decent chance your wife might be due widow’s benefits from her first husband. She would get those benefits if they exceed whatever she is due on her own record or what she might be due on your account. And as far as your ex-wife is concerned, as long as she is alive, it is highly unlikely you’d ever be due any of her Social Security.
Q: I am 68 years old. I am getting widow’s benefits from my husband’s Social Security. He died in 2010. I have been living with a nice elderly gentleman. He wants to get married because he thinks it is the proper thing to do. But I told him that I would lose my widow’s benefits if we went through with this. Am I right?
A: Normally you’d be right because the law generally says if you are married to a second husband, you can’t get any of your first husband’s benefits. But the rules are different for widows who remarry after age 60. A woman who does that can keep the widow’s benefits she is getting from a prior husband’s Social Security account. So start making those wedding plans.
Q: I am living with a woman who has been divorced three times. She is 68. I was married twice before myself. I am 70. I am getting $2,600 in my own retirement benefit. She is getting about $600 per month from one of her ex-husbands. (FYI: All of her ex-husbands are still alive and all have remarried.) She won’t marry me because she said she will lose her Social Security. I told her that a woman who remarries after age 60 won’t lose her benefits. She wants to see this in writing. So if you put this in the newspaper, I can show her I’m right.
A: Well then, you might not want to show her this because you are wrong. Your wife would indeed lose the benefits she is getting from her ex-husband if she marries you. The difference between your case and the situation described in the prior question and answer is that woman was getting widow’s benefits. And again, the law says a widow who remarries after age 60 can keep her survivor benefits. But your significant other’s husband is still alive. She is getting benefits as his supposedly dependent ex-wife. If she marries you, she would no longer be her ex-husband’s dependent spouse so those benefits would stop effective with the month you get married.
Q: I’ve been married three times. Two of those exes are getting benefits on my account. Can I turn around and claim Social Security from their accounts?
A: No, you can’t. The only way they could be getting spousal benefits on your record is because their own Social Security benefits are significantly smaller than yours. In other words, because your Social Security amount is so much higher than what they are getting on their own accounts, you just aren’t due anything from them.