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Social Security and You: Split marriage adds up to no benefits
Social Security and You

Social Security and You: Split marriage adds up to no benefits

  • Updated
Tom Margenau

Q: I am 66 years old. I am getting my own Social Security retirement check, but it is rather small — just shy of $1,000 per month. I tried to get benefits from my deceased husband’s record, but my claim was turned down.

They said I wasn’t married long enough. But I was married for a total of 10 years. Can you please review my case and tell me what you think? And is there anything I can do about it? Here are the facts. I was married on August 5, 1989. Then we got a divorce on May 14, 1998. But then we remarried on June 19, 1999. And my husband died on January 21, 2000.

A: Wow! What an intriguing situation. I once wrote a column in which I answered reader’s complaints that Social Security rules are so complicated by pointing out that it is actually people’s lives that can be so complicated — and Social Security’s laws and regulations just get a little twisted trying to adapt to that fact.

Your claim for widow’s benefits was properly rejected because the law says your current marriage must have lasted at least nine months. And sadly, your husband died before you reached that benchmark. You were married just a little over seven months when he died.

You brought up the 10-year issue. That rule applies to women who are trying to get benefits as a divorced wife or widow. The law normally says you must reach your 10th wedding anniversary to be eligible for benefits from an ex-husband’s record. But the rules are a little different in a split marriage like yours.

On the one hand, someone might look at your case and say you don’t meet the 10-year rule. After all, your first marriage lasted about eight years and 10 months. And your second marriage lasted seven months. If you add that up, it comes out to a little less than nine years and six months of marriage.

But what the law actually says is that your marriage must have been in existence at some point in each of 10 continuous years. And because you were indeed married to this man at some point in each of the years from 1989 to 2000, you do meet the 10-year marriage requirement.

But of course, the sad twist to that issue is that we are talking about benefits for a divorced widow. And you were not divorced when your husband died.

So to sum up. You cannot get benefits as a married widow because your second marriage didn’t last nine months before your husband died. And you can’t get benefits as a divorced widow because ... again ... you were not divorced when he passed away.

You asked me what you can do about this. You said that your claim for widow’s benefits was “turned down.” I assume by that you mean you filed a formal application for widow’s benefits with the Social Security Administration and then received a letter of denial (as opposed to just asking a clerk about your eligibility and getting an informal and oral rejection). If it has been less than two months since you got the denial letter, you could file an appeal. Eventually, you will talk to a Social Security judge about your case. I would try making the point that although your second marriage lasted less than nine months, your combined marriages lasted well more than that. Who knows? Maybe the judge will interpret the rules differently than what SSA and I have told you. It’s worth a shot!

Q: I tried to get benefits from my ex-husband’s Social Security but was turned down because of the 10-year rule. I just don’t think that’s fair. We were married in 1995 and divorced in 2002. Then we remarried in 2009 and divorced again in 2015. In other words, we were married a total of about 13 years. Why can’t I get his Social Security?

A: I purposely put your question right behind the last one to clarify a point about this 10-year business.

Again, the law treats each of your marriages separately. And you didn’t reach your 10th wedding anniversary in either of them.

In the prior answer, I explained how Social Security rules treat split marriages. To repeat, the law says you can combine the time each one lasted IF your marriage was in existence at some point during a 10-year continuous period. But between 1995 when you got married the first time and 2015 when you got divorced the second time, there was no 10-year continuous length of time that you were married.

Q: I took my Social Security at 62. I get $1,257 per month. I tried to get Social Security from my ex-husband but was denied. They said I get more on my own. But how can that be? He made a six-figure income all his life. I have no idea how much he is getting, but it must be the maximum. And certainly half of the maximum Social Security benefit is more than I am getting.

A: You’re right that half of the maximum Social Security benefit is more than you are getting on your own account. But here is the deal. You are not due half of your ex-husband’s Social Security.

Because you took reduced retirement benefits on your own account, that reduction carries over to any spousal benefits you might be due. Instead of half, you are due about one-third of his rate. Let’s say he is getting the maximum retirement benefit. That would be about $2,700. One third of that is around $890. Your own $1,257 rate is much more than that. So your claim for divorced wife’s benefits was correctly denied.

Q: I took my Social Security at age 70. So I am getting an extra 32 percent added to my Social Security checks. My wife is about to turn 66. Does she get half of my age 70 rate? Or half of my full retirement age rate? And what happens when I die?

A: While you are alive, your wife will be due 50 percent of your age 66 (full retirement age) rate — less any benefits she might be due on her own account. But after you die, her widow’s benefit is based on your augmented age 70 amount. So she will get 100 percent of whatever you were getting at the time of death — again, less any benefits she might be due on her own record.

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