Marriage or divorce can have lifetime consequences for your Social Security and retirement finances.  Be sure you say “I know” before you say “I do” or “I’m done.”

Marriage.  It’s a beautiful thing…except when it’s not.  In addition to its romantic overtones, marriage is a legal institution with a big impact on your finances, your retirement, and particularly your Social Security.  Here are some Social Security “must-knows” as you consider marriage or divorce.

Marriage: the good news 

On the plus side, anyone who’s married has access to Social Security spousal payments.  [ ] The payment amount is up to 50% of your spouse’s full Social Security payment (his or her payment at Full Retirement Age or “FRA,” currently 66).

Spousal payments provide a “floor level” of payments—if your own Social Security is small, you can get the larger spousal payments.  There’s no marriage penalty, just an opportunity to get at least the spousal payment level.

In addition, being married opens the door to one of the almost-magical strategies to maximize Social Security: a restricted application for spouse-only payments [ ].  Basically you can get the 50% spousal payment from FRA to age 70, then switch to your own Social Security at 70 for a higher payment, up to 132% of your age-66 payment.  The catch is that you can’t file for Social Security before FRA.  The spouse-only payments act as a “bridge” to help you get to age 70.  See this blog [ ] for an extreme example of spouse-only payments.

You will also be eligible for Social Security widow(er)’s payments [ ] if your spouse passes away.  The payment then is up to 100% of his or her Social Security payment, even if he or she was not Social Security age or hadn’t started payments.

If you are in a same-sex marriage [ ], you have these same rights, with two requirements:  the marriage must have taken place in a state that recognized the marriage, and you must reside in such a state.

Marriage:  when to hit “pause” 

In rare situations marriage may reduce your Social Security.

If your spouse (or your ex-spouse of 10 years’ marriage) passed away, you have rights to widow’s or widower’s payments from Social Security.  But if you remarry before age 60 those payments are barred for as long as your new marriage lasts.  Here’s the big exception:  remarriage after age 60 doesn’t count; you would still have access to the widow(er)’s payments.  So if you’re planning a wedding two weeks before your 60th birthday, you might want to reschedule.


Divorce and Social Security 

The key figure to know about Social Security and divorce is ten years.  If you are married ten years before divorcing, you keep your access to benefits on your ex’s Social Security record.  Former spouse’s payments [ ] act just like payments for current spouses.  You could draw up to 50% of your ex’s full Social Security payment, if that is larger than your own Social Security.

The same goes for the spouse-only payments from FRA to 70, described above.  You could draw a small payment from your ex’s Social Security at FRA, then switch to your own at 70 for up to a 132% payment.  Remember, you can’t file for Social Security before FRA to keep that option open.

You can also get surviving former spouse [ ] payments.  If you were married for ten years, got divorced, and your former spouse died, you could get payments on your ex’s Social Security record, up to 100% of his or her payment.

Delay divorce?

Notice the ten-year-marriage requirement for former spouse’s payments.  If you finalize the divorce just one day before your 10-year anniversary, all those rights disappear forever.  You would never have access to former spouse, spouse-only, or surviving former spouse payments on your ex’s Social Security record.  So if you are signing the papers a month before the anniversary, you might want to postpone a bit, just to keep those options open for the future.

Are people aware of these rules?  Do they really change their behavior because of them?  A recent study [ ] found that there’s a slight increase in the number of divorces just after the ten-year mark.  For ages 35-55, it was a 6% increase.  For those over 55, it was 11.7%.  Apparently some people really do take the Social Security divorce rules into account.

Is that a little crass?  Should people really base their marriage or divorce on Social Security rules?  These are certainly momentous life events, and involve dozens of considerations.  The heart will guide the way, but legal and financial implications should be considered.  You’ve got to protect yourself.  Be sure you say “I know” before you say “I do” or “I’m done.”

Always check with Social Security [] for details that might affect you.  And as always, keep on planning.

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