Q: I married my late husband one month after he was diagnosed with stage IV metastatic pancreatic cancer. He was 56 and I was 54. We had been planning a wedding, and it really meant a lot to both of us to be married, knowing his time was limited. We were focused on his illness and treatments, and taking care of his mother who just had a stroke, and did not fully investigate the financial consequences.
We married in December 2004. He died a few months later in April, 2005. Since we were only married a short time, I was told I am ineligible for widow’s benefits. We had lived together for six years before we married but didn't qualify for common law marriage status. Since he wasn’t incapacitated over 6 months, he didn't qualify for Social Security disability benefits either. He was self-employed and didn’t have disability insurance; and the life insurance policy he had applied for in good faith was rescinded when his illness was diagnosed just before signing the policy.
I lost my job shortly after he died. My previous, ex-husband is 65, but I am told I don’t qualify for his benefit either, as I remarried! I can only find part-time work, and at 62, I don’t have enough to retire on. I am juggling 3 part-time jobs, and not bringing in enough to cover all my expenses, let alone save for retirement. I really need the widow’s benefits until I reach full retirement so I can save for the future and live modestly now. Any ideas?
A: Yes. Based on what you say, there's a good chance that you do qualify for a Social Security benefit based on your 65 year old ex-husband's work record.
It's true that you cannot claim benefits based on a former spouse's record if you are currently married to someone else. But you aren't currently married.
A 62 year-old unmarried woman with two deceased spouses, or two living ex-spouses over age 62, or a deceased spouse and a living 62 year old ex-spouse is eligible to claim a Social Security benefit based on the record of either former husband. (The rules are unisex; they apply for men, too.)
Your eligibility to claim a benefit from your first marriage depends on its duration. If it lasted for at least ten years, you qualify.
Here are the basic Social Security rules on how long you must have been married before you can claim benefits based on your spouse's record:
1. Your marriage must have lasted at least nine months to qualify you for a widow's benefit. There are exceptions, but unfortunately they don't apply to you. This rule is waived if your spouse was expected to live for at least nine months at the time of your marriage and he died accidentally or while serving on active duty as a member of a uniformed service.
2. The marriage must have lasted at least one year for you to collect a spousal benefit during your husband's lifetime.
3. It must have lasted at least ten years to qualify you for a benefit based on a former husband's work record, during his lifetime or after his death.
Your ex-husband is still alive. So if you do qualify for Social Security based on his record, it will be a spousal benefit, not a survivor benefit.
Assuming you're eligible, the maximum spousal benefit would be 50% of the amount your ex-husband is entitled to receive at his full retirement age.
But you must be 66 years old to get the maximum. (The determining factor is your age, not his.) At 62 you can only claim 35% of the amount he gets at full retirement age; and the discount is permanent.
Moreover, at 62 you'll automatically be applying both for your own benefit (also permanently discounted because you're under 66) and for the spousal benefit based on his record. You'll get the larger of the two amounts.
Finally, until you turn 66, you'll be subject to the annual earnings cap I wrote about in my last post. The Social Security Administration will withhold $1 of benefit for each $2 you earn above $14,160 a year.
All of which is to say that this may prove a more slender financial lifeline than you really need. But a slender lifeline is better than none.
Please send your questions to Lynn@LynnBrennersFamilyFinance.com. I'm sorry I can't respond personally to every email. Questions are only addressed online.
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