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Waiting to Get Married: A Recipe for Social Security Trouble?

This week a longtime reader pointed me to a recent Consumerist article with the provocative headline “Outdated Social Security System Puts Some Who Wait To Marry At Greater Risk For Poverty In Retirement.” The reader wanted to know whether the claim in the title made sense and, if so, why that would be the case.

It’s true that waiting to marry has a number of financial consequences — some of them negative. For example, if you intend to spend several years out of the workforce to raise children, it’s generally better (from a financial perspective) to do it early in your career rather than missing several years in the middle (i.e., years that would otherwise be higher-earning years) and having to start over.

But as far as Social Security goes, waiting to get married isn’t really a problem. You only have to be married for one year (less, in some cases) to qualify for spousal benefits. And, in this regard, it’s an all-or-nothing sort of qualification. That is, being married longer does not increase the amount of spousal benefits for which you would be eligible.

If there’s any truth to the claim, it lies in the fact that, in order to qualify for spousal benefits as an ex-spouse, you must have been married to your former spouse for at least 10 years. So, you could make a case that if you start early, you have a greater chance of having at least one marriage that qualifies. But even if you wait, say, a decade past the average average age at first marriage (27.9), you would still have plenty of time to have one marriage that either:

  • Lasts 10 years, or
  • Is still in effect (and is at least 1 year old) by age 62.

There are a number of ways in which the Social Security system could be considered outdated. For example, if you look at the ratio of benefits received to taxes paid, Social Security is typically more generous to couples in which only one spouse works than to couples in which both spouses work.* But waiting to get married doesn’t really put you at a significant disadvantage as far as Social Security is concerned.

*The system is even less generous to people who don’t get married at all — because their work record can only result in retirement benefits rather than retirement benefits and spousal benefits.

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