January 12, 2020

Members of the Baby Boomer generation continue to join the retirement ranks. As they arrive, or get close to their mid-sixties, they have many questions: How does the future of the system look? How are benefits affecting personal circumstances, such as divorce, remarriage or the availability of private pensions? Here are the answers to these and other frequently asked questions.

As additional members of the Baby Boomer generation arrive at retirement age, the Social Security system will become even more strained.

Young or old, if you get a paycheck or make estimated tax payments, you no doubt feel the bite that Social Security takes. Originally, those taxes represented a promise of future benefits. But unless you are on the cusp of retirement now, that promise may sound more and more like the refrain of an old cartoon character who regularly vowed, “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.”

Unfortunately, many people are wondering … who’s going to pay and who qualifies for benefits?

Marriage, Divorce, Remarriage and Social Security

Does your marital status affect the amount of Social Security you can collect? In some ways, yes. For example, suppose a spouse’s estimated benefit is considerably lower than her husband’s. She is entitled to receive payments based on her own record, or 50% of her spouse’s benefit, whichever is higher. Assuming your monthly amount is $1,600 and your spouse’s is $700, he or she is entitled to draw benefits equal to half of your amount, or $800. In fact, even if your spouse has never worked, at full retirement age he or she can collect an amount equal to half your benefit. In another example, suppose you were married for 12 years, then divorced and later remarried. At retirement time, who can collect benefits based on your record … your current spouse or your former spouse?

The answer might be both. Your divorced spouse can receive benefits based on your record if he or she:

  • Was married to you for at least 10 years,
  • Is at least 62 years old,
  • Is unmarried, and
  • Is entitled to his or her own retirement or disability benefit.

To qualify, your former spouse must meet the above requirements, must not have applied for benefits on his or her own record and must have been divorced from you for at least two years. The maximum payment a former spouse can receive is 50% of the amount you would receive at full retirement age. In addition, benefits are only payable to your former spouse as long as he or she remains, or becomes, unmarried.

Important point: The amounts paid to your former spouse will not affect the benefits paid to you or other family members who receive benefits based on your record.

Pensions vs. Social Security

If you have a pension through your job, will those payments reduce your Social Security benefits?

The answer depends on whether or not the work that generated the pension was subject to Social Security taxes. If Social Security wasn’t withheld from your paycheck, your pension payments probably will reduce your benefits, under the 1983 Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP). Work that falls into this category may include civil service (federal, or some state and local), and employers outside of the United States.

The WEP was passed to prevent people who paid less Social Security taxes from collecting unfairly high benefits in addition to their pensions. The amount of reduction will depend on how many years you worked without paying Social Security tax and when you expect to retire.

The ability of future retirees to collect Social Security benefits depends on numerous factors, some on a national scale, such as the pending retirement of the enormous Baby Boomer generation. Other factors are more personal, like marital status. This underscores the point that no one should rely on these payments for all or most of their retirement income. The Social Security program has been described as one leg of a “three-legged stool,” the other two legs being personal savings and other retirement plans.

When you consider that the average monthly benefit check for 2020 will be about $1,503, it’s clear these payments are meant to be a foundation, rather than the makings of a cozy nest. That’s why ensuring a comfortable retirement has to be a matter of personal responsibility guided by the wise counsel of a trusted financial advisor.

© 2020