Q: A man and woman, married, are retired, both collecting Social Security retirement benefits. She dies, and he begins collecting on her Social Security, which is higher. Eight years later, the man meets a new woman.
Evaluating the good and bad of getting married: Will the new woman, as the widowed man’s new spouse, be able to collect on his current Social Security benefit at his death (which is a survivor benefit from the first wife)? Or will the new woman as the widowed man’s new spouse be required to collect on his own Social Security?
Assume the new woman/wife has a smaller SS benefit on her own record than the widowed husband’s benefit on his own record, and less than his current survivor benefit from his deceased wife. --PB via email
A: For goodness sake, let's give these people names!!
Fred and Ethel are a retired couple, both collecting Social Security. Ethel dies, and Fred later meets Francine. Okay?
You haven’t given me any of their ages. That’s a huge omission, since age is a crucial factor in answering any question about Social Security.
I’m going to assume they all started collecting Social Security at their full retirement ages. Bear in mind that if they'd filed for benefits earlier, it would affect all the numbers. Also, please remember that all the benefit amounts I cite in this story are steadily adjusted for inflation as the years go by. I’m just sticking with the original numbers for simplicity’s sake.
Okay, here goes.
After Ethel's death, you stipulate that Fred begins collecting her Social Security, 'which is higher' than his own. The benefit based on your own work record is called your PIA (or ‘primary insurance amount’). Let's say Fred’s PIA was $1,800 a month and Ethel's PIA was $2,000 a month. His widower's benefit is the higher of the two amounts: $2,000 a month. (From the government's viewpoint, $1,800 of this widower’s benefit comes from his PIA and $200 from Ethel’s PIA.)
Eight years later, Fred meets Francine, whose Social Security benefit is $400 a month.
Fred and Francine weigh the pros and cons of marrying, including (but let’s hope not exclusively) how tying the knot would affect their respective Social Security benefits.
Since Fred is remarrying when he’s over 60, he won’t lose his $2,000 widower’s benefit.
What's more, after they’ve been married for nine months, Francine can collect a spousal benefit based on Fred’s PIA. (In case you've forgotten, that's $1,800 a month.) She gets the larger of two amounts: her own PIA or 50% of Fred's PIA. Since her PIA is only $400 a month, she’ll now receive $900.
So they get married. Fred’s still collecting $2,000 a month ($1,800 of his PIA plus $200 of the late Ethel’s PIA) and soon Francine’s collecting $900 a month ($400 of her own PIA plus $500 of Fred’s PIA.)
Then Fred dies, leaving Francine eligible to collect as his widow.
As a widow, Francine is eligible to collect 100% of Fred’s PIA ($1,800 a month). And the answer to your question is ... (drumroll, please):
No, as a widow, Francine cannot collect the late Fred’s $2,000 survivor benefit from his marriage to Ethel. That benefit is only available to Ethel's surviving spouse.
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