Senior Marriage and Social Security: Rules to Know

Romance aside, you may want to delay your wedding date (or divorce, if that's the case) to get the best Social Security benefit possible.

You may want to push the pause button before taking that walk down the aisle if you're close to retirement and counting on income from Social Security. There are some important rules you need to know to time that wedding day to maximize your Social Security benefits.

The most uncomplicated scenario would be getting married for the first time, with no ex-spouse or deceased spouse in the background of either spouse. In this case, you must be married at least one year in order for one of the spouses to be eligible for a spousal benefit. This is where one spouse receives half of the other spouse's Social Security benefit in the case where it's higher than their own. The higher-income spouse must have claimed their own benefit, and the spouse claiming the spousal benefit must be at least 62 years of age.

Now let's change the circumstances and assume you are receiving a spousal benefit on an ex-spouse's work record. In order to receive this benefit, you must have been married for at least 10 years, and both you and your ex must be at least 62 years of age. If you're close to the 10-year mark and contemplating a divorce, you may want to wait until after you reach that anniversary if you don't want to lose the spousal benefit.

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If you remarry, you will no longer be eligible for those ex-spouse benefits. But you will be eligible for spousal benefits on your new spouse's record as long as you both have reached age 62.

If you do get remarried and later your second marriage also ends in a divorce, as long as you were married to each spouse for 10 years or longer, you can choose between the two spouses' benefits. If your second marriage did not last 10 years, you will still be eligible to collect benefits on your first spouse's record.

The last scenario to look at is when a spouse or ex-spouse is deceased. If it's a deceased spouse, you can claim survivor benefits starting at age 60, providing the marriage lasted nine months before the spouse passed away. If it's an ex-spouse, you can claim survivor benefits starting at age 60, providing the marriage lasted at least 10 years before the divorce. And, in that case, you can remarry (opens in new tab), and it wouldn't affect your benefit.

The critical thing to remember in receiving survivor benefits in both of these situations is that if you remarry before age 60, this will cut off your eligibility to collect on your deceased spouse's or ex-spouse's record. This could be very expensive, because while a spousal benefit entitles you to half of the other spouse's Social Security, a survivor benefit would entitle you to all of it. If you wait until age 60 or later to remarry, you can still collect those survivor benefits from your deceased spouse/ex-spouse. You can also let your own benefit continue to grow until age 70, and if it's larger than the survivor benefit at that time, you can switch over to your own then.

The lesson to be learned is that seniors considering marriage need to plot out their strategy carefully when it comes to claiming Social Security, even if it means in some cases delaying your wedding day, or your divorce.

This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC or with FINRA.

Mike Piershale, ChFC
President, Piershale Financial Group
Mike Piershale, ChFC, is president of Piershale Financial Group (opens in new tab) in Barrington, Illinois. He works directly with clients on retirement and estate planning, portfolio management and insurance needs.