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Will Remarrying Reduce My Benefits?

How long you are married affects your eligibility for survivor benefits

Q. I’m considering getting married to a long-lost love whom I recently re-connected with. I am 70 and he is 71. We both claimed retirement benefits based on our own work records when we reached full retirement age. Will marriage reduce our individual retirement benefits? If one of us dies, will the other receive the deceased’s Social Security retirement benefits? 

A. The answer to your first question: No. Your marriage will not reduce your individual retirement benefits — Social Security has no marriage penalty. The amounts currently being paid to you and your prospective spouse were each calculated separately when each of you retired and will stay the same.

See also: What's the best age to claim benefits?

But here’s something to consider: if the retirement benefit that one of you gets is more than twice as high as the other’s retirement benefit, it might make financial sense for the person with the smaller check to switch to a spousal benefit.

Suppose your retirement benefit is $1,200 a month and your future husband’s is $400. He would qualify on your work record for a spousal benefit of $600 (50 percent of your benefit). That would be a nice $200 raise. (You’d need to have been married for a year, however.)

But he couldn’t collect his own retirement benefit and the spousal benefit. That’s a basic principle of Social Security: if you qualify for two benefits you get a check equal to the higher of the two. But you can’t collect two full benefits.

The answer to your second question: It depends. If one of you dies, the other spouse would be eligible for a survivor benefit, provided the marriage were at least nine months old. Again, the principle of collecting the higher of two benefits would kick in.

If the benefits you were receiving on your own work record were higher than what you’d be due as a survivor, you’d continue to get your own benefit. If your survivor benefit were higher, you’d get that amount.

Your potential survivor benefit would be 100 percent of what your deceased spouse was collecting. The amount would be lower if you had begun your own benefits before full retirement age.

For more information, see my column “Social Security Survivor Benefits” or the Social Security Web page “Marriage Requirement to Receive Survivors’ Benefits.”

Q. I was a stay-at-home mom. I want to begin a spousal benefit on my husband’s work record but am told that my check will be permanently reduced if I start before my full retirement age. But is there some kind of provision concerning children that lets you get the full amount even if you start early? 

A. There is. And you’re right to be cautious about beginning benefits early. If you wait until your full retirement age of 66 to apply for your spousal benefit, you’ll get an amount equal to 50 percent of your husband’s benefits (he has to have already started receiving them).

If you apply between age 62 and 66, your payments usually will be permanently reduced.

However, if you’re taking care of a child who is under age 16, or who gets Social Security disability benefits, you may receive the full 50 percent payment until the child’s 16th birthday, even if you start benefits before your full retirement age. The rules concerning this exception and when the added benefits run out are very complex — you should check with the Social Security Administration to ask if you qualify.

For more details, see my column “Do Young Children Get Benefits?” or the Social Security Web page “Benefit Amount Based Upon a Spouse’s Earnings.”

You may also like: Do states tax Social Security?

Stan Hinden, a former columnist for the Washington Post, wrote How to Retire Happy: The 12 Most Important Decisions You Must Make Before You Retire. Have a question? Check out the AARP Social Security Question and Answer Tool.