Peculiar divorces lead to peculiar Social Security scenarios, says expert


Q: My husband and I got married 30 years ago. About 25 years ago, we got a divorce. But a year and a half later, almost on a whim, we got remarried. But we never got any kind of papers from the minister who remarried us.

Frankly, I’m not really sure he was an actual minister. Is this going to be a problem now that we are about to turn 62 and want to sign up for Social Security? My husband worked all his life. I mostly stayed home.

A: You’ve got an interesting story, and possibly a troubling dilemma with respect to any potential wife’s and eventually widow’s benefits you might be due on your husband’s Social Security account.

And that’s because in order to qualify for spousal benefits on his record, you are going to have to provide some kind of legal documentation that you were married to him. And I’m talking the second time. That divorce you got legally dissolved your first marriage. And because that marriage lasted less than 10 years, it’s an irrelevant issue for Social Security purposes.

You said that you never got any papers from the minister who married you the second time. I’m not entirely clear how state laws work, but didn’t you have to get a legal marriage license for your second marriage? If so, those papers must exist in the state or county where marriage No. 2 occurred.

If those papers don’t exist, and if you really did just run off and remarry this guy in front of a storefront “minister” who kept no records, you still may have some options. The Social Security Administration follows state laws with respect to the validity of a marriage. So if your state recognizes common-law marriage, you should be able to prove that you have had a common-law marriage for the past 20 years or so.

If there is no marriage license for marriage No. 2, and if you don’t live in a common-law state, I can think of only one other option. You could simply file for spousal benefits citing only your first marriage. I’m betting that marriage wasn’t done “on a whim,” so there must be a marriage license and/or certificate for that marriage.

And then just don’t mention the divorce. What SSA doesn’t know won’t hurt them, but certainly will help you. SSA doesn’t check divorce records for the thousands of spousal claims filed every day. So you should get the benefits you are due. But remember, I never told you to do that!

Q: My husband and I divorced more than 20 years ago. We haven’t spoken or had any kind of communication since the divorce. He has remarried and lives in another state. I have never remarried. My concern is that when he dies, I want to make sure I know about that so I can file for widow’s benefits on his record.

I asked the Social Security people if they would notify me when he dies. They said they can’t. That doesn’t seem fair. How will I ever know when he dies?

A: You face a dilemma millions of divorced women face, especially those who are out of touch with their ex-husbands. The Social Security Administration would contact you after his death IF you were already listed as a spouse or ex-spouse on his account. In other words, if you were already getting benefits as a divorced wife on his record. But you are not.

So what can you do to keep track of your husband? Could you possibly maintain contact with someone who knows him? This might seem bizarre at first, but how about trying to connect with his current spouse? If you explain to her that any benefits you might be due on your ex husband’s record takes absolutely nothing away from what she would be due when he dies, perhaps she’d be inclined to help you. Many divorced women have told me they read the online version of the newspaper in the town where their ex-husband lives and they check out he obituary section daily!

Q: My husband and I were married 40 years ago. To say the least, our marriage was rocky and troubled. About 20 years ago, he moved out and I never heard from him again. I have no idea where he is, if he has remarried, or if he even is alive or dead.

About a year after he moved out, I did get divorce papers in the mail. They came from a lawyer in Tucson. I live in San Diego. Because I was so upset, I just took the papers and threw them away. I never heard from the lawyer or my husband again. I am about to turn 62 and plan to retire. I wonder if I am due any benefits on my husband’s Social Security record. He would be over 70 now. What do you think?

A: Assuming you have been working and paying into Social Security, you are likely not due any benefits on his record if he is alive. In other words, your own retirement benefit would be much higher than any spousal benefits you might be due. But if he’s dead, it’s a different story. You could be due higher benefits on his account.

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