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Ask Larry: Can My Friends Divorce And Remarry After 60 To Get Social Security Widow’s Benefits?

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Today’s column addresses questions about divorcing and remarrying after 60 to allow survivor’s benefits from a previous marriage, temporarily avoiding the deeming provision even if you were born after 1/1/1954 and how Social Security uses earnings histories to calculate benefit amounts. Larry Kotlikoff is a Professor of Economics at Boston University and the founder and president of Economic Security Planning, Inc, which markets Maximize My Social Security and MaxiFi Planner.

See more Ask Larry answers here.

Have Social Security questions of your own you’d like answered? Ask Larry about Social Security here.


Can My Friends Divorce And Remarry After 60 To Get Social Security Widow’s Benefits?

Hi Larry, My friend lost her husband who was a high income earner, whereas she was a stay at home mother with no education past high school. Unfortunately she wasn’t left much for herself due to some investments that went south just before his death. She remarried in her 50s but she did not know she would lose her widow’s benefit based on her deceased husband’s Social Security earnings if she remarried.

She is now 60 and she and her new husband have a good relationship, but their assets are rapidly diminishing and she could really use the Social Security benefit she would have been entitled to if she waited to remarry. Another friend told them to divorce and remarry in a couple years so she could collect her widow benefit. Is this possible? Is it true? Thanks, Emma

Hi Emma, Yes, that would be permitted under the Social Security law. Widow(er)s can’t become entitled to benefits on a prior spouse’s Social Security record if they’re remarried and if their current marriage occurred before they turned 60, but they can potentially qualify for widow(er)’s benefits if their remarriage ends in divorce.

And once a person has established entitlement to widow(er)’s benefits, their benefits wouldn’t terminate if they marry again after 60, or after 50 if they’re collecting disabled widow(er)’s benefits.

That said, I’m not suggesting that anyone should get a divorce for the sole purpose of qualifying for widow(er)’s benefits from the record of a prior spouse. Depending on the factors involved, a divorce could adversely affect a person’s ability to collect Social Security benefits on the record of the spouse they divorce, and may have other unanticipated consequences.

But due to the arbitrary age of 60 for remarriage still permitting previous widow(er)’s benefits, this is how the system currently works. Best, Larry


Is It Correct That I Can Claim My Benefits Now Without Being Deemed To File For Spousal Benefits?

Hello Larry, I’m almost 63 and my husband is almost 65. I’m considering collecting my Social Security retirement benefits now, however I need your help thinking this through. What if I claim my retirement benefits now, which is about $1,100; at FRA it would be $1,400 which is slightly lower than my spousal benefits; my husband plans to wait until FRA which today shows as $2,900. If I collect now, I’m collecting only my retirement benefits and I’m not deemed to file for spouse benefits because he is not collecting his retirement benefit — is that correct?

However, once he starts collecting at his retirement benefit FRA, I’ll be 64 years and eight months at which point I’ll be deemed to have filed for spouse benefits — is that correct? Is that a good plan? I don’t know the formula to calculate how much I’d get as spousal benefits while already collecting my retirement benefit when both would be before FRA.

Or it’s better that we wait until FRA and touch our retirement accounts if we need to? Going back to work is a very small alternative in our plans. Thanks, Kathy

Hi Kathy. Yes, it sounds like your understanding is basically correct. Since you were born after 1/1/1954, you couldn’t file for your own retirement benefits without being deemed to also have filed for spousal benefits as soon as you would first be eligible for those benefits. In other words, filing for your retirement benefits would obligate you to claim any spousal benefits for which you qualify in the earliest possible month that you’d be eligible for the spousal benefits.

And if that’s prior to your full retirement age (FRA), then both your retirement benefit rate and your spousal rate would be reduced for age.

You’ll need to decide for yourself whether or not you believe that filing for benefits early is a good plan. It sounds like you and your husband may want to consider using my company’s software — Maximize My Social Security or MaxiFi Planner — to help you determine which filing strategy would be the most likely to maximize benefits in your particular set of circumstances. Social Security calculators provided by other companies or non-profits may provide proper suggestions if they were built with extreme care. Best, Larry


Can Social Security Substitute The Earnings Years Used To Calculate My Benefit Rate?

Hi Larry, I am 69 and have been receiving my Social Security retirement benefit since I was 65. I am still working. In most of my employment years, my income was not that great and I’ve been told that those were the years that Social Security used to calculate my monthly check. But in recent years my income is much better. Can Social Security substitute some of my recent employment years for some of the poor income years so I can receive a larger monthly check? Thanks, Joe

Hi Joe, Yes, but not only can they do this, this is what they already do automatically. What you were told is not correct.

Social Security retirement benefits are based on an average of a person’s highest 35 years of Social Security covered wage-indexed earnings, whenever those years occurred, are occurring or will occur in the future. It doesn’t matter whether the person is already drawing benefits or at what age they have the earnings.

If a person continues to work after filing for Social Security benefits, their benefit rate can be increased if they have a higher year of earnings than one of the 35 highest indexed earnings years previously used to calculate their benefit rate.

Social Security automatically recomputes benefit rates to include additional years of higher earnings, so you shouldn’t need to do anything to get a benefit increase if one is due. If you think that your benefit rate should be increased and it hasn’t been done, you can submit a written request to Social Security asking for a benefit recomputation. Best, Larry


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