There are a lot of reasons to tie the knot again later in life: tax perks, retirement benefits, the fear of dying alone, and, you know, true love. (Check out Danielle Paquette’s story on one woman’s particularly tough marriage decision here.) A little-known Social Security rule, however, can effectively create an economic penalty to remarry before the age of 60 — but many people end up ignoring it.
Here’s how it works: Normally, if your spouse (or in some cases your ex-spouse) dies, you’re eligible to collect Social Security benefits on your former spouse’s work record. These payments are called “survivor benefits,” and they can amount to tens of thousands of dollars over the course of your retirement years. (Here’s a handy calculator to help you figure out how much you can expect to collect.)
So, do people actually respond to this economic incentive and wait until their 60th birthday to remarry? Not so much, even though economic theory suggests they should.
If people stand to gain more from collecting on their previous spouse’s work history, it’s in their interest to wait until they turn 60 to walk down the aisle again — at which point Social Security rules permit them to collect those survivor benefits, even after remarriage.
You’d expect a big spike in remarriages once people hit 60, but that’s not what happens. The graph above charts marriage behavior among 55- to 70-year-olds using American Community Survey data gathered from 2008-2010. This is the generation that’s on the older end of the post-WII Baby Boomer generation you’re always hearing about.
The trend is clear: Younger Baby Boomers are more likely to walk down the aisle than older ones. Remarriages by people right around their 60th birthdays show no exception to this trend; People are more likely to remarry in their late 50s than in their early 60s. The only deviation is among 67-year-olds, who are slightly more likely than 66-year-olds to have remarried during the past 12 months.
(A few caveats to this data: These numbers include all people who remarried in their late 50s, including all remarried divorcees. That means we’re counting two groups who wouldn’t actually have to worry about survivor benefits: divorcees who weren’t married long enough to be eligible to collect survivor benefits on their late ex-spouse’s work record, and divorcees with living ex-spouses whose remarriages would make them eligible to later collect higher survivor benefits.)
Interestingly, a previous generation of widows may have been more responsive to the age-60 remarriage rule than the widows of today. Back in 2004, three researchers analyzed national vital statistics data collected from 1969-1995 and found that the Social Security rule affected the behavior of widows, but not divorced women, particularly around their 60th birthdays.
So, what gives? Why aren’t people today heading to the altar in droves at age 60? It could be that people just don’t know about the survivor benefits rules. Yet the numbers seem to suggest that even some of those who do know about the rule don’t always act accordingly. Love is like kinda that.