Broker Check


Social Security Planning for Death and Divorce

| September 12, 2016
Social Security

This morning I read an article in the Financial Planning magazine that shed new light on life expectancy. Not only is there a 50% chance that at least one member of a couple aged 65 will live to age 92, there is a 25% chance that one will live to age 97! 1 Couple this with a divorce rate of somewhere between 40 and 50%, and Social Security benefits just became almost incomprehensible. 2 So what do you need to know? The simple answer is "everything” – frankly, for most of folks, we don't know anything and will need help even if simply filing for benefits for the first time and death or divorce has not happened…. and you certainly need help even if you are getting remarried. The more complex answers can be explained by a few stories.

Most people believe that if their spouse dies, they simply receive the higher of their benefit or their spouse's benefit.  In reality, this may not be the case and will depend upon multiple facts. Imagine your spouse being sick for years and planning everything around the prospect of receiving their higher Social Security benefit when they pass, yet when the time comes it doesn't happen. This was the story of an amazing couple a few years ago. During her husband's struggle with Alzheimer's, she quit work and filed for both of their Social Security benefits. He was 66 and she was 62. A year later she lost her husband, but didn't receive his benefit. She received much less. Why? Even though he had reached Full Retirement Age, she was only 63. Worse, she went back to work. Yes! Work caused her Social Security benefits to be cut in half. A little planning that may have resulted in her waiting to take her benefit was potentially worth hundreds of thousands of dollars over her lifetime.

Marriage can be costly! Men like to say they know that already, but maybe not even men know how it will affect Social Security. An unexpected tragedy happened several years ago when a 48 year old woman lost her husband. Ten years later she finally found someone new she wanted to spend the rest of her life with. They married when she was 59. Sadly, she had no idea that her late husband's Social Security benefits would disappear. Had she waited one more year, she would have had the choice to take her late husband's Social Security benefits as early as age 60. Worse, her late husband's Social Security benefit, even at the reduced amount, was far more than her own or half her new husband's at Full Retirement Age. Additionally, death is the only time that the old ‘file and suspend’ or the file restricted methods will still be of use in the future. This means widows or widowers can take their  deceased spouse's benefit and allow their own to keep growing and get a major raise at some point in the future. If they plan carefully.

A similar story was from the result of a divorce. My grandmother always said “marry the first time for love and the second time for money.” Well, this young lady must have been confused. She did it backwards and it cost her greatly. Although there are many situations where you can receive spousal benefits from ex-spouse's benefits, remarriage erases it all. When considering your next spouse, you might actually consider requesting a Social Security statement.

The bottom line?  Don't try to do the job alone. We know we haven't lived your life, but we have lived it through the lives of the families we have worked with over the years, and have lived what you have yet to experience. And by the way, don't let the money be the deal killer for remarriage –just be sure to be fully informed.  Remember, the goal is to live Life on Purpose! Enjoy life! Sleep at night! You don't know what you don't know, and more times than not there is a solution that will allow you to overcome the obstacle of money and do just that.


  1. Financial Planning. September 2016
  2. American Psychological Association. 2016