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Social Security From a Bigamist
Q: I only recently learned that I was married to a bigamist! I thought I just had a regular ex-husband. But now I'm not sure I ever had a husband at all. We were "married" for 15 years before getting a divorce several years ago. He recently died. And after that happened, I learned that he was married to two other women at the same time that he was married to me! Or to clarify that, he married the first woman and then left her, but he never divorced her. Then he married the second woman and left her, but he never divorced her and married me.
He told me that he was single when we got married. Am I going to be eligible for any of his Social Security?
A: I believe there is a pretty good chance that you will qualify for divorced widow's benefits (assuming you meet all the other eligibility requirements). The Social Security Administration normally follows state laws when it comes to marriage. In other words, if the state you were living in with Mr. Wonderful considers your marriage to be legal, SSA will consider it legal and pay you benefits on his record.
But even if there are some issues with the state recognizing the legitimacy of your marriage, there are other provisions in Social Security law that may help you. In a nutshell, those rules say that if you entered into the marriage in "good faith" — in other words, if you married the guy truly believing that he was single and not already married to someone else — they could consider you legally married for Social Security purposes and pay you divorced widow's benefits.
By the way, there is a chance some of his other wives — or I suppose I should say "victims" — may also qualify for Social Security benefits on his record. But even if they do, you each would receive full benefits (i.e., you don't offset one another).
Q: In a recent column, you said that once you had 10 years of work, there was no point to working anymore for Social Security purposes. But I thought Social Security benefits were based on the highest 35 years of work and earnings. So wouldn't it make sense for a person to work and pay Social Security taxes for at least 35 years?
A: It certainly would make sense for a person to work at least 35 years. In fact, during their working lifetime, most people spend at least 40 or more years at jobs where they are probably paying into Social Security.
I'm sorry I didn't make myself clear in that prior column.
In other words, once you've worked for 10 years, you are potentially eligible for Social Security retirement payments. And to meet that basic qualification requirement, it doesn't matter if you have 40 credits or 400 credits. If you have at least 40 credits, you're locked into the system.
But because the amount of your benefit is based on your highest 35 years of earnings, then obviously, the more years you work and the more money you make, the higher your Social Security benefit will be. So, it would make sense to work as many years as you can in order to keep building up the amount of your Social Security benefit.
Q: If I retire at age 58 in 2011, how much am I messing up my eventual Social Security benefit? In other words, I'm going to have several years of "zero" earnings just before I take my Social Security. That can't be good!
A: You shouldn't lose too much sleep over this. Your Social Security retirement benefit certainly won't be as high as it could have been had you kept working right up to the time you reach 62 — the earliest Social Security eligibility age. But it's not going to be dramatically less because of your early retirement. Your Social Security benefit is based on your average earnings over your highest 35 years of work. For most people, their "high 35" are the last 35 years of earnings.
That means your Social Security benefit will be based on your average wage probably during the years 1976 through 2011. Had you kept working until age 62, your benefit would have been based on your average wage from 1980 through 2015. That former time period (1976-2011) probably results in a lower average wage than the latter (1980-2015), which would translate into a lower Social Security benefit. How much lower? It depends entirely on your past income or what it would have been for the years in question. But my hunch is you'll end up with a Social Security check that's maybe $100 less than it could have been had you kept working until age 62.
If you have a Social Security question, Tom Margenau has the answer. Contact him at email@example.com. To find out more about Tom Margenau and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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