Social Security Retirement and Survivor Benefits – Myths and Realities

70% of the country relies upon social security for a major source of income in retirement.  There are Social security lifetime benefits — like retirement benefits– and social security survivor benefits usually when one loses a spouse.

Social security Retirement income is a plan that working people contribute to by  paying social security tax during their lifetime  to then access in retirement as income. It is voluntary only in the sense that if you don’t work you don’t pay.  Because the plan was started in the 30’s it was designed with married couples in mind in which one was the bread winner (usually he) and the other was at home with the children (usually she).  When the couple got to retirement age (currently 62 or older based on date of birth) both spouses were able to access the plan.  The working spouse would get 100% of the benefits based on how much he had paid into the system.  His spouse at her retirement age was then able to access her benefit, if she had worked and contributed, or one- half of her spouse’s , whichever was greater.  If her spouse predeceased her, then she had the option to continue taking her benefit or the full amount of her spouse’s whichever was greater. Also ex spouses are able to access these benefits if there marriage is considered a long term marriage at divorce- usually 10 years or greater and it is not negotiated otherwise.

For same sex couples this is mostly new information as there has not been access to Social Security before July 2013.  And not having fit into the system, there are some complexities that need to be understood.  To be eligible for social security survivor benefits, you must be married at least nine months.  We are currently waiting for Social Security to issue guidance on whether Registered Domestic Partners (RDPs) may in fact be eligible for survivor benefits based upon the fact that a Registered Domestic Partner is an intestate heir, or rather next of kin under state law. As of now, we know of no survivor benefits paid out to a surviving RDP.  If you have lost a spouse or an RDP in the last few years, you should go to the Social Security office and apply for survivor benefits immediately.

If you were already receiving survivor benefits or retirement benefits as a result of a previous opposite sex marriage and you remarry or are married to your same sex spouse you will lose those benefits as remarriage terminates such benefits.  Interestingly enough, for persons over the age of 62 who would otherwise lose their social security benefits by remarrying, they can under state law become RDPs and have the same rights and responsibilities as married persons but only for state purposes and not for federal.  If you are receiving benefits that should be terminated because you are married to someone else now, you should contact the social security office immediately as well, and be prepared to pay back any benefit that you have received since July 2013.

If you have not started taking social security but plan to in the near future, you should consult your financial advisor about filing and suspending or go to http://www.socialsecurity.gov/retire2/suspend.htm. This allows you to take one half of your spouse’s benefit while you delay taking until a later time as your monthly benefit increases dramatically if you wait.  Age 70 is the longest you would benefit from waiting, but to the extent that one half of your spouse’s monthly benefit is as much or all you need for now, i.e. you are still working etc., this is a great way to maximize your social security benefits.