If you're either divorced or have lost your former spouse, then it's important to know the impact that a remarriage will have on your Social Security survivors benefits.
I was prompted to address this after receiving the following question from a reader:
A friend of mine never collected a dime of Social Security from her first husband's salary. Her first husband died and they were married long enough to have grown children at the time of his death. She subsequently remarried before she turned 60. Is she not eligible for survival benefits based off her first husband's work history, or has the Social Security Administration made a mistake?
When are you eligible for survivors benefits?
As a general rule, the eligibility for survivors benefits is straightforward. Namely, a widow or widower is eligible to receive full survivors benefits at his or her full retirement age -- at present, this is 66 years old.
Unlike ordinary Social Security retirement benefits, which kick in at age 62, you can take survivors benefits as early as age 60. But doing so will reduce the size of the monthly benefit by a predetermined amount depending on how early they are applied for.
The same rules apply, moreover, for divorced spouses. That is, if your former spouse dies, you can receive survivors benefits based on their work history. The only catch is that you must have been married for at least 10 years prior to the divorce.
What happens if you get remarried?
All of the rules I've noted assume that you're not remarried. If you are, on the other hand, then there are a couple of specific things you need to know.
If the remarriage occurred after you turned 60, then you're in the clear. According to the SSA's website: "If your widow or widower remarries after they reach age 60 (age 50 if disabled), the remarriage will not affect their eligibility for survivors benefits."
However, if you remarried prior to turning 60, and have stayed remarried, then you're no longer eligible for survivors benefits tied to your former spouse's work history. Again, here's the official explanation from the SSA: "If your widow, widower or surviving divorced spouse remarries before he or she reaches age 60 (age 50 if disabled), they cannot receive benefits as a surviving spouse while he or she is married."
If the subsequent marriage also ends through either death or divorce, then you once again become eligible for survivors benefits stemming from the former marriage.
In short, what matters is whether you're remarried at the time you apply for spousal benefits.