Social Security and Sophie's Choice

By Tom Margenau

January 9, 2019 7 min read

Today's column offers up a marital conundrum. Should a woman divorce the man she loves in order to collect rather substantial Social Security benefits from a past husband? Would you do it? Before you answer, let's review her story.

I got to talking to a nice lady I will call "Sophie" at a local coffee shop. She is 71 years old. She has been married to a guy we'll call "Sam" for the past 12 years. Sam gets a rather small Social Security check. Only $1,340 per month. Sophie gets an even smaller benefit, $765. Sam is Sophie's second husband. They have been married for 15 years. Sophie says he is the nicest man she has ever met.

Let's call Sophie's first husband "Doc." He was a rather well-known and respected — and highly paid — surgeon in our town. They were married for just shy of 30 years when he died in a car accident. She was 55 at the time. She got the little $255 death benefit from Social Security when he died, but nothing else. (At 55, she wasn't old enough for widow's benefits.) Sophie said she was devastated when Doc died. But a couple years later, she met Sam and, well, one thing led to another, and they got married when she was 59.

Sophie told me the insurance money and other resources that Doc left her have been dwindling away. She said that although she and Sam are comfortable, money is starting to be an issue. When Sophie learned that I worked for the Social Security Administration for 32 years, she said, "I've always wondered if I could get widow's benefits from my first husband's Social Security record."

I had to tell her that the answer is no. As long as she is married to Sam, she can't get any of Doc's Social Security. I told her that if Sam died, then she would be able to go back to Doc's account and get widow's benefits on his record. In fact, if that happened, she'd also be due widow's benefits from Sam. But she wouldn't get both benefits; she could only get the one that pays the higher rate. Because Doc was a high wage earner, his benefit would be significantly more than Sam's. I guessed Doc's basic benefit rate (and thus Sophie's widow's rate) would be around $2,500.

Some readers may wonder why Doc's benefit rate would be so high, especially given the fact that he died many years ago. I can't get into the nitty-gritty here, but in a nutshell, it has to do with the fact that Doc's past already-high earnings are indexed for inflation and that his date of death is essentially treated like his retirement date.

But again, Sophie can't get her hands on any of Doc's money as long as Sam is around. However, I presented her with some food for thought. I told her that if she divorced Sam, she could turn around and immediately file for widow's benefits on Doc's account.

Before I go on, some of my more astute readers who are familiar with Social Security divorce rules may point out that there is a law that says a woman must wait two years after her divorce before she can collect benefits from her ex-husband. And that is true. But the husband the law is talking about is the guy she just divorced. That two-year waiting period doesn't apply to collecting benefits from any prior husband's account.

Well, Sophie was not at all happy with that suggestion. There was no way she was going to divorce Sam just to get widow's benefits from Doc's Social Security account.

But then I added another twist. I told her that after she divorced Sam and filed for widow's benefits on Doc's record, she could then turn around and remarry Sam and keep getting those widow's benefits from her first husband.

Why can she do that? Because the law says that a woman getting widow's benefits from one husband can continue to get those benefits even if she remarries — as long as that remarriage occurs after age 60.

Initially, Sophie was still not very enthusiastic about all these legal shenanigans. But she did ask me what it would mean dollarwise. In other words, what kind of Social Security benefit she could get from Doc. As I alluded to above, I told her my educated guess was about $2,500 per month. She would keep getting her $765 retirement benefit. And then she would get $1,735 in monthly widow's benefits from Doc's account. But of course I told her she would have to talk to someone at her local Social Security office to find out exactly what her widow's rate would be on Doc's record.

Sophie said she certainly would look into that and talk to Sam before deciding what they would do. But she did say that the potential of getting an extra $1,735 or so each month in Social Security benefits was very intriguing and would help their financial situation immensely. She then thanked me for my "advice." But I quickly pointed out to Sophie that I really wasn't "advising" her to do anything. I was merely pointing out some quirks in Social Security law that possibly could help her.

And this is an important point I need to make to my readers: I am NOT a financial advisor. I'm just an old retired Social Security guy who knows the ins and outs of Social Security's sometimes complicated laws and regulations. And that's what I do with this column. I explain Social Security rules to people. But then I let them decide what to do. I will admit that sometimes when I present a reader with a couple options about — say — when to start their benefits, I will write that, for example, "option two sure sounds attractive to me." But that's about as far as I will go when it comes to handing out financial advice.

So now, back to Sophie and her choice. I'm kind of curious what my readers think. What would you do if you were in Sophie's shoes? Would you just stick with the status quo? Or would you go through the legal and financial hassles of divorcing Sam, filing for widow's benefits from Doc, and then remarrying Sam? Remember: By jumping through those hoops, you end up with an extra $1,735 per month. I'm not really sure I'd do it. But what about you?

If you have a Social Security question, Tom Margenau has the answer. Contact him at [email protected] To find out more about Tom Margenau and to read past columns and see features from other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

Photo credit: at Pixabay

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