Living In Sin

By Tom Margenau

May 21, 2018 7 min read

Q: My mother told me she remembers a time when women had to "live in sin" (those are her words) to avoid losing Social Security benefits. She couldn't elaborate, but she thinks some senior women still have to do that today. Do you know what she is talking about?

A: Yes, I know exactly what she is talking about. It has to do with the payment of Social Security widow's benefits. And it makes a good story about how Social Security and politics can make strange bedfellows.

I have to start out by explaining the thinking behind widow's benefits. They, along with other payments available to wives (and to a much lesser extent, husbands) and minor children, fall under the broad category of "auxiliary and survivor benefits." These are benefits payable to the dependents of someone getting a Social Security retirement or disability check, or to the survivors of a worker who has died.

And the concept of "dependency" is a key qualifying factor. In other words, a potential auxiliary or survivor beneficiary must prove that she or he was financially dependent on the primary spouse or parent.

In order to keep people from having to present all kinds of personal and financial records as part of the application process, the law provides short cuts to help prove dependency. For example, with only a few exceptions, children are essentially deemed to be dependent on a parent with whom they are living.

And in the case of a spouse, the law assumes the person with the lower Social Security benefit was probably financially dependent on the person with the higher Social Security benefit.

For example, let's say Tom is 66 and getting $2,100 per month from Social Security. His 62-year-old wife, Becky, is due $700 in her own monthly retirement benefits. Because Becky has the lower Social Security benefit, she is presumed to be financially dependent on Tom and thus qualifies for spousal benefits on his record. On the other hand, Tom, with the much higher Social Security retirement check, could not be considered financially dependent on Becky.

Now some of you might be saying: "What about all those guys who are claiming husband's benefits on their lower-earning wife's Social Security account while saving their own retirement benefits until age 70?" That is the much-touted "file and restrict" maximizing strategy. That strategy grew out of a loophole in some Social Security amendments passed in the 1990s. And that loophole made a mockery of that basic Social Security tenet that said a husband or wife must be financially dependent on his or her partner to qualify for spousal benefits. Once officials in Washington realized this, they closed the loophole. it. Anyone turning 66 after January 2020 can no longer employ that unintended and misguided strategy.

OK, having established the ground rule of "dependency" as a qualifying factor for spousal benefits, let's get to the fun part of this column -- the sinning part!

We need to go back about 40 years ago. Millions of women were collecting widow's benefits on their deceased husband's Social Security accounts. And some of those women, once a suitable mourning period had elapsed, might eventually start batting their eyes at a handsome bachelor or widower whom they met at the bingo parlor, or senior center, or across the banana stand at their local supermarket.

And sometimes sparks would fly, and the sweet, lovely elderly couple would decide to get married. All was happiness and bliss until the woman realized this: If she got married, she would lose the widow's benefits she was collecting on her first husband's Social Security record.

How could this be? Well, it all has to do with that concept of "dependency" as a qualifying factor for her widow's benefits. To repeat, she was getting those benefits because she was deemed to be financially dependent on her first husband. But if she married husband No. 2, then the law would consider her to be this new guy's dependent spouse. That meant she could no longer be deemed dependent on her first husband. Therefore, she would no longer qualify for widow's benefits on his Social Security record.

So how did she get around this law? Well, that's where the "sinning" came in. If the couple merely lived together, as opposed to legally tying the knot, she could keep collecting her widow's benefits from her first husband.

Eventually, the media picked up on this trend. And they had a field day with it. Headlines in newspapers around the country went like this: "Widow must live in sin to avoid losing Social Security check." Television news reports featured interviews with women in disguise who reported, "I am ashamed to say I am living in sin to avoid losing my government benefits." Whatever the report, the phase "living in sin" was always the common thread.

It became a national embarrassment that a federal law was requiring these sweet little old grandmas to live outsides the bounds of marriage. Eventually, the pressure just got too much for red-faced members of Congress. They couldn't act quickly enough to change the law. I don't remember the exact date, but sometime in the 1970s they changed the law to say that a woman who remarried after age 60 could continue to receive widow's benefits from her first husband's Social Security account.

And that law still stands today. But of course today, the whole concept of "living in sin" as a social taboo is almost laughable. For example, just on my own block, there are two older couples who have been living together -- unmarried -- for years. It's just no big deal.

On the other hand, there also are many senior citizen couples who want to make everything legal and get married. And if the woman is getting a Social Security widow's check, she has absolutely no fear of losing those benefits from husband No. 1 if she decides to walk down the aisle with husband No. 2.

Tom Margenau's weekly column, "Social Security and You," can be found at creators.com.

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