Social Security: 3 Crazy (but Effective!) Ways to Get More Benefits

By Dan Caplinger Markets Fool.com

Social Security is a vital way for retirees to make ends meet, and making the most of your Social Security benefits is critical. Plenty of conventional strategies exist that can help you boost your benefits, from delaying before applying for Social Security to making sure that you've maximized your earnings throughout your 35-year career. However, there are also some little-known aspects of Social Security that open the door to more unconventional ways to get bigger Social Security checks. Below, we'll look at three of them.

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1. Stay married just a bit longer

For most couples contemplating divorce, the last thing they'd want to hear is advice telling them to stay together any longer than absolutely necessary. However, Social Security gives divorcing couples an incentive to stick it out until their 10th anniversary, because if they do, the ex-spouses can collect spousal and survivor benefits based on their ex-spouse's work history. That can mean a lot of extra money, especially in situations where there are substantial earnings disparities between the spouses.

Indeed, one anecdote suggests that this might even have played at least a small role in a celebrity marriage. Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner reportedly split up one day after their 10th anniversary, and tabloids noted that this would have entitled the couple to take spousal benefits. California state family law also likely played a role, with courts often ruling toward more equitable divisions of property for longer-lasting marriages of 10 years or more. This probably isn't something worth staying in a bad marriage for several extra years, but if you've already gotten close to the mark, there's an incentive to go the distance for Social Security purposes.

2. Marry up...

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Conversely, if your earnings history -- or those of an ex-spouse -- isn't quite up to snuff, one way to piggyback onto a better Social Security situation is to get married to someone with a more impressive lifetime earnings history. There's no age limitation on how old you can be when you get married. Before a new spouse can file for Social Security spousal benefits, the marriage must have reached its first anniversary by the day before filing the application.

Those added benefits also apply in a survivor situation. Couples must have been married for at least nine months prior to the death of the person on whose work history the surviving spouse is claiming survivor benefits. However, there are exceptions to that rule, including accidental death or active military service members' deaths in the line of duty, that allow survivor benefits with no time limit. Again, this rules out death-bed nuptials, but it does open up some opportunities for some seniors.

3. ... or don't remarry at all

Finally, there are situations in which getting remarried can cost you your benefits, making it smarter not to tie the knot a second time. For instance, in the divorce situation mentioned above, those who were married for at least 10 years can claim spousal benefits on an ex-spouse's work history. However, those rights go away if you get remarried. Instead, you would then only be able to collect spousal benefits based on your current spouse's work record.

A similar situation exists with respect to survivor benefits after the death of a spouse or ex-spouse, but there's an added twist. Remarrying before you reach age 60 cuts off survivor benefits, leaving you only with any spousal rights related to your current spouse. However, if you get remarried after your 60th birthday, then you can hang onto survivor benefit eligibility from a prior spouse. That puts you in a situation where you can pick and choose the best benefit available. Meanwhile, it might make sense to wait to remarry if you're younger than that key 60-year-old mark.

These three methods for getting more from Social Security aren't exactly the most conventional, and some would believe that they're too crazy to consider. Nevertheless, they are consistent with Social Security law, and they're something to keep in mind if you find yourself in any of the situations discussed above.

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