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Understanding Social Security: Social Security’s weird remarriage rule can cost you a lot of money

You might think that something as simple as getting remarried should be treated the same in all circumstances, but that isn’t the case when it comes to Social Security.

The labyrinth of rules around Social Security has a way to make this act, if done at the wrong time, the grounds for eliminating benefits you were either already receiving or could potentially receive.

As it turns out, your 60th birthday is extremely important. Get married a day before your 60th, and you can lose benefits. The day of, or the day after? No problem, you are still eligible.

I’m referring to the potential to receive survivor benefits based on an earlier marriage. The earlier marriage could have ended because of a divorce or the death of your earlier spouse. In either case, this previous spouse or ex-spouse is now deceased, and you are otherwise eligible to receive survivor benefits based on the late spouse’s record.

In some cases, you might already be receiving this survivor benefit — if you were disabled, for example, you could be eligible for the survivor benefit as early as age 50. You could also be eligible for a survivor benefit as a parent caring for a child (under age 16) of the deceased.

Beyond those two exceptions, age 60 is the first age when most surviving spouses (or ex-spouses) are eligible to receive survivor benefits.

Read: My wife and I will have $25,000 in a retirement emergency fund — what’s the best place to store that cash

Under Social Security’s rules however, if you remarry before age 60 you are no longer eligible to receive the survivor benefit based on a late spouse’s (or ex-spouse’s) record. This ineligibility continues for the duration of your marriage that occurred before age 60. If that marriage ends, whether by death or divorce, your eligibility for survivor benefits based on your earlier marriage(s) is restored.

On the other hand, if you wait until your 60th birthday or later to remarry, you will remain eligible to receive survivor benefits based on a previous marriage.

Eligibility for survivor benefits assumes that the marriage lasted at least one year if it ended in the death of your spouse, or that the marriage at least 10 years if the marriage ended in a divorce and then later the ex-spouse died.

Read: Here’s another reason to wait until age 70 before claiming Social Security

Here’s an example (this won’t cover every possible combination, but I’ll try to cover the most common situations):

Dave is single, age 59, and a widower. Once he reaches age 60, he can be eligible to apply for survivor benefits based on his late wife Sarah’s record. As we’ve discussed in other columns, applying for this benefit at age 60 will have no impact on his own retirement benefit — he can claim his own retirement benefit later, perhaps at Full Retirement Age or later, with no reduction for his having received the survivor benefit.

The wrinkle here is that Dave and Jane are planning a wedding. Jane insists on having the wedding during 2022 (as a numerologist, the 6 Universal Year number is important to her). Unfortunately, Dave will not reach age 60 until February of 2023.

Read: What’s the smartest way to spend down the money you’ve saved for retirement?

If Dave and Jane do go ahead and marry in 2022, it will mean that Dave gives up all claim to survivor benefits based on Sarah’s record while he’s married to Jane. This could be a significant amount of money, since it likely represents seven or more years of benefits (up to Dave’s Full Retirement Age). Dave and Jane need to think this over very carefully, since any potential benefits during that period will be gone forever if they marry before Dave reaches the age of 60.

Now, suppose Jane were to die a few years later, when Dave is 63. Dave would once again be eligible for survivor benefits based on Sarah’s record, and most likely could choose between benefits based on Sarah’s and Jane’s record. Whichever of the two he chooses could be paid to him, and he could switch from one to the other if he chose to do so.

For example, the reduced benefit based on Sarah’s record worked out to $1,000 a month if he takes it at 63. If he took the survivor benefit based on Jane’s record at this point, it is only $900. Delaying taking the benefit based on Jane’s record until his Full Retirement Age results in an increase to approximately $1,071. So he might take the benefit based on Sarah’s record for a few years, and then switch over to the survivor benefit based on Jane’s record. He’d receive that benefit up to his age 70, at which point his own retirement benefit has maximized.

It could work out in the reverse as well. Dave might decide to take the survivor benefit based on Jane’s record first, followed by switching over to Sarah’s record at his Full Retirement Age. Or he might just take one survivor benefit for a while and then switch to his own, never taking benefits based on the other late spouse.

These same options apply if the late spouse was an ex-spouse, as long as the marriage lasted at least 10 years. There is an exception to the remarriage rule but it only applies in special circumstances.

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