Rules for Social Security survivor benefits

Kate: I will turn 65 this year. I was married for 29 years to a high wage earner, then divorced. I mostly did not work during those years. I remarried at age 59. Eight and a half months later my new husband died. Based on your Social Security book, which has been very helpful, I am worried that because I remarried before 60, I will lose my divorced spousal benefits. But because my new husband died before we were married for nine months, I am not eligible for widow benefits.

I am freaking out here. Is there any help for me?

Phil Moeller: I am so sorry to hear about your loss.

Fortunately, things are not as bad as you fear. While the book is correct as far as it went. there often are deeper levels to Social Security rules, and your situation involves these finer points.

I reached out to Jerry Lutz, a retired Social Security claims expert who frequently helps me with answers to complicated questions. Here is what he had to say:

A remarriage prior to age 60 that ends in death or divorce doesn’t disqualify a person from being eligible for benefits based on a previous spouse’s record. So, since this lady is not married now it sounds like she would qualify for divorced spousal benefits on her previous husband’s account.

Her high earning spouse must be deceased or be at least age 62 or drawing benefits in order for her to qualify for divorced spousal or survivor benefits, though, and she’d need to wait until full retirement age (FRA) if she doesn’t want to receive a reduced benefit. Her FRA would be age 66 if she was born in 1954 or earlier, and there wouldn’t be any advantage for her to wait past then to file for divorced spousal or survivor benefits if she qualifies.

Furthermore, there are exceptions to the nine-month duration of marriage requirement for widow’s benefits. The most common exception is an accidental death, so if her second husband’s death could be classified as accidental, she might be able to draw reduced benefits on his record now and switch to unreduced benefits on the first husband’s record later. This assumes that her benefit rate on the first husband would be higher than what she’d get on the second husband’s record, but if that’s not the case she’d want to reverse the order. Even a heart attack can be classified as an accidental death if it was caused by unusual exertion (e.g. snow shoveling). She can see details of this policy here.

I hope this helps. Please let me know if you still have questions about this.

Susan – New Jersey: I have been reading your Social Security book as part of my retirement planning and was disheartened to learn that, after the death of my beloved first husband, I should have waited until age 60 to remarry my second chance at love. Last year I was told by a local Social Security representative that the age 60 is that magic number which disqualified me from getting survivor benefits from my first husband. This means my 28 years of marriage to him were meaningless in terms of Social Security benefits! She said that if I wanted to collect from my first husband that I should divorce my second husband!

I am sure there are other people in this same situation, where not being aware of the rules is so costly! I wish there was a way to get this information out there better for others. I am now 66. Do you have any thoughts or suggestions for me?

Phil Moeller: I’m sorry the Social Security claiming rules have had such an adverse impact on you. If it were up to me, reading our book would be a mandatory requirement, and one I’m sure my publisher would love!

The only thing that comes to mind that might help you in the future is bleak, at best, but I’ll mention it anyway. If your second husband were to die, you would become eligible for a survivor benefit from him or your first husband (whichever is larger).

Of course, Social Security does not pay out both a survivor and a retirement benefit, but just the larger of the two. So, if your age-70 retirement benefit is larger than your survivor benefit, you would not receive any additional money from either survivor benefit.

Alexa: I am 57 years old, was married more than 10 years and qualify for widow’s benefits. Can I claim widow’s benefits at age 60 and then claim my own benefits at age 70?

Phil Moeller: Yes, you can. You are allowed to claim a widow’s benefit as early as age 60 while allowing your own retirement benefit to rise in value until as late as age 70, when it will reach its maximum value. The recent changes in Social Security laws did not affect your rights here. Also, you don’t need to have been married for 10 years but only nine months. The 10-year requirement is for spousal or survivor benefits involving a divorced spouse.