Dear Rusty: My girlfriend of nine years will be 66 on June 4 next year. It was her plan to begin taking half of her ex-husband’s Social Security at that time allowing hers to grow until she reached 70, at which time her benefit would slightly exceed half of her ex’s.

Three months ago, I was diagnosed with an illness that may very well shorten my time here significantly. So, I’m thinking if we get married she would qualify for 100 percent of my Social Security after one year, which would be only four months later than when she could begin taking half her ex’s. So, I guess, in that instance she would just begin taking half of my benefit.

The big question is, what happens if I pass on before we’ve been married for a year? Is she stuck then at her own reduced rate or can she go back to claim her ex’s and allow her own to grow until age 70? I was delaying collecting my own benefits until age 66 in January, but began collecting in August after my diagnosis. Thanks for any insight you can offer. — Providing for my Girlfriend

Dear Providing: I’m very sorry to hear of your health situation, but I applaud you for tending to your partner’s future during this difficult time.

To start, I’d like to clarify that spousal benefits and survivor benefits are two distinctly different things in Social Security. Spousal benefits refer to benefits given while both spouses are living, while survivor benefits refer to those given when one spouse predeceases the other.

While you and your new wife would need to be married for at least one year for her to collect spousal benefits from you, you would only need to be married nine months for her to be eligible for survivor benefits. The distinction, of course, is that as your spouse while you are living she’d be eligible to collect up to 50 percent of the benefit you’re entitled to at your full retirement age, but as your survivor (after nine months of marriage) she’d be eligible to collect 100 percent of the Social Security benefit you were receiving at your death.

If you and your girlfriend get married now, she loses her ability to collect only spousal benefits from her ex-spouse while you are living, because she cannot collect ex-spouse benefits while she is married. But once she is no longer married that ability is restored.

So, if you were to pass before you are married for nine months she would still have the option (because she was born before 1954) of claiming only Social Security spousal benefits on her ex-spouse’s record while allowing her own Social Security retirement benefit to grow by 8 percent per year until she reaches age 70. At that time, she would switch to the higher benefit on her own record.

I believe there is little or no risk to your girlfriend’s future Social Security benefits for you to get married. If your prognosis is good and you live at least the required nine months, she can collect survivor’s benefits from your record equal to 100 percent of the amount you are receiving at your death. If you survive beyond one year she will be entitled to file for spousal benefits on your record and collect 50 percent of your full retirement age benefit while you are living and then switch to survivor benefits when you pass.

If your prognosis is not good and you do not survive for the required nine months of marriage, your new wife will still have the ability (provided she has not yet filed for her own benefits) to file a “restricted application for spousal benefits only” on her living ex-husband’s Social Security record and allow her own benefit to grow.

Once again, I’m so sorry to hear of your failing health, but glad to be able to provide you with some Social Security guidance and, hopefully, ease your anxiety at least on this matter. My best wishes go out to you at this difficult time.

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