Q & A

Ask Rusty – Should Octogenarians Tell Social Security They Married?

Dear Rusty: We were married two years ago at age 78 and 81. Do we need to do anything with Social Security?  Signed: Blissfully Happy

Dear Blissfully Happy: Congratulations on your fairly recent marriage and, yes, there are some things you should do. Specifically, you should contact Social Security to inform them of your marriage, see whether any additional benefits are available, and to make any changes needed to your contact information. Here are some things to consider:

• If a name change has occurred for one of you, that person should contact Social Security to report the change. A copy of your marriage certificate (and other ID) will be required, and a new Social Security card will be issued.

• If a change of address has also occurred for one or both of you, that must be reported. It’s important that Social Security has the correct mailing address, email, and contact phone number for every beneficiary. 

• If there are any other changes to the contact Information on file with the Social Security Administration for either of you (e.g., your banking information), the affected person should inform Social Security of the changes needed. 

• Social Security will evaluate whether any benefit increase is available as a result of your marriage, which may be the case if one of you is entitled to a “spousal boost” (an additional amount from the other now that you’re married). A spousal boost may be available if one has a monthly Social Security payment which is more than twice the other’s benefit. Social Security can answer that question for you when you call. 

• You can contact either your local Social Security office (find the number at www.ssa.gov/locator) or call the national number at 1.800.772.1213 and tell them you need to inform them of your marriage and update your contact information. If you have (or if you create) an online “my Social Security account at www.ssa.gov/myaccount, you can initiate changes to your contact information online, but you will need to call Social Security directly via phone to record your marriage and see if any changes to monthly benefits are available. All of this can likely be done without requiring a visit to your local SS office.

It is very important that Social Security be made aware of your new marital status and to ensure that they have the correct contact information for both of you. Even if the contact information is unchanged for one of you, the other should contact Social Security as described above to update their contact information and to determine if any changes to monthly benefits are appropriate as a result of your marriage. Doing so now will avoid future issues and will make sure you are both getting the correct monthly Social Security payments as a married couple. And if one of you is entitled to a higher spousal amount, you should ask for the increase to be applied retroactively (SS will pay up to 6 months retroactively). I suggest you call Social Security as soon as possible to inform them of your marriage and make any necessary changes to your contact information. 

Comments On This Topic

  1. Supposed I planned to sign up for social security at 70, and I pass away before that. I would get nothing. My spouse would still get a boost in the amount received as I made more. But everything I put in vanishes. I am pre-full retirement and still have income. If I sign up at 63, all payments will be withheld due to my income. Then at full retirement age, presuming I selected to collect, a re-calculation will take place and my monthly amount would be adjusted. Well what happens when I have withholdings, and I pass away? Are the accrued and some lump will be paid, or will I (someone else) still lose everything?

    • DrB,
      It is true that if you pass away before collecting your earned Social Security benefits, your surviving spouse (or other dependent(s), e.g., minor or disabled adult children) will likely benefit from your record. However, Social Security has, since inception, been a “pay as you go” program where those currently contributing (through payroll taxes on earnings) pay for those currently receiving benefits. That means that if you die before collecting, the monies you contributed were already used to pay other recipients, but the contributions you made still entitle your dependents to collect benefits for the rest of their lives. For those who become eligible for Social Security in their early 60s, average longevity is mid-80s, meaning that most beneficiaries will collect benefits for more than two decades.
      The Social Security payroll taxes you contribute aren’t put into a private account in your name. And, on average, it’s to the recipient’s benefit the program doesn’t pay benefits from a private account because that personal account would be depleted fairly quickly after you claim. Rather than getting benefits for the rest of your life, you’d only get benefits (plus interest) from your personal account, which would run dry pretty fast. FYI, We have researched this very carefully and found that, on average, all payroll taxes contributed by an individual to Social Security will be recovered within 5 years of starting benefits. The actual length of time varies somewhat depending on lifetime earnings and contributions – some beneficiaries will recover everything contributed within 3 years, while it could take as much as 5 years for higher earners to get back everything they’ve paid into the program. And for clarity, since self-employed individuals pay both the employee and employer portion of the payroll tax, it does take longer for those who own their own business to recoup what they’ve contributed. Nevertheless, on average, nearly all who claim benefits will get more from the program than they paid in payroll taxes.
      As to your specific question, if you die before collecting, the contributions you made weren’t accrued and won’t be paid out in a lump sum. Rather, the contributions you made while working were used to pay benefits to beneficiaries receiving at the time, and those currently working after you pass will fund any benefits paid to your dependents for as long as they live.
      Russell Gloor
      National Social Security Advisor
      The AMAC Foundation

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