Q. I lost my WWII husband on January 14, 2014. It was a common-law marriage. I worked for over 50 years in the fields of education and medicine. However, many of the places where I worked did not have Social Security. I have turned in all the evidence required to prove that we presented ourselves as husband and wife. Texas recognizes common-law marriages. I am confined to a wheelchair. I served our country, as a civilian commissioned as a 2nd Lt., in the Air Force and Army overseas. Please help me as I am going to be homeless. – Joan
A. In the six weeks since Joan wrote me this note, she found a place to live. But she is no closer to resolving her problems with Social Security. It is easy to paint the agency as a heartless bureaucracy preventing an impoverished, 80-year-old veteran from getting her widow’s benefit. But there’s nothing about Joan’s story that is easy, and her problem is one that is becoming all too common.
Today more and more couples are living together without getting married, especially Millennials and Gen Xers. And many of them are having children and raising families. More than 3.3 million persons aged 50 and older were in such households in 2013, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
There can be sound reasons for avoiding legal marriage. But when it comes to Social Security, you and your family may pay a high price by opting for a common-law union. Quite simply, it may be difficult, if not impossible, to claim benefits. And that can damage the financial security of your partner, children and other dependents. If you are in a common-law marriage, here are the three basic requirements for claiming benefits:
1. Your state recognizes common-law marriage. And yours may not. Only 11 states plus the District of Columbia recognize these marriages—among them, Colorado, New Hampshire, and Texas, which is Joan’s state of residence.
For your partnership to qualify, these states generally require that you both agree that you are married, live together and present yourselves in public as husband and wife. But the specifics of these rules are different in many states and usually complicated.
Social Security rules follow state laws when determining eligibility for spousal and survivor benefits. (The same policy applies to same-sex marriage.) If you do qualify, you will be able to receive the same benefits as you would with a traditional marriage, including spousal or survivor benefits.
2. You’ve got plenty of documentation. Social Security requirements for claiming survivor benefits call for detailed proof of the union. For an 80-year old, wheelchair-bound person like Joan, that’s a challenge to provide, especially in the case of a deceased spouse. Among other documents, she must complete a special form, plus get similar forms filled out by one of her blood relatives and two blood relatives of her late partner, John.
3. You’re prepared to fight bureaucratic gridlock. Joan has had multiple meetings with Social Security postponed for reasons she does not understand. She has been told she does not qualify as a common-law spouse under Texas laws. But the reasons she has been given may be incorrect. She says, for example, a Social Security rep told her that she and John needed to own a home to qualify. This is not true. She needs only to document that they lived as husband and wife and held themselves out to be married. Beginning in 2003, Texas made it harder for couples to qualify as common-law spouses, which could complicate Joan’s case.
Making matters even more difficult, Social Security has other convoluted rules that can change or even invalidate her benefits. Joan, it turns out, took a lump-sum payment from her government pension decades ago. That triggers something called the Government Pension Offset rule, which may prevent her from receiving a survivor’s benefit based on John’s earnings record. (For more on that rule, click here.)
Clearly, older Americans need more help than we’re giving them to navigate Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other highly regulated and complicated safety-net programs. This is hard stuff even for experts. It is not possible for the rest of us to understand without more knowledgeable assistance.
Meanwhile, for those in common-law marriages it’s important to plan ahead now. If you can’t qualify for Social Security benefits, you will need to save more while you’re still working. If your state does recognize common-law marriage, find out what documentation you’ll need, so you’ll have it when you file your claim. The last thing you’ll want to do in retirement is struggle with the Social Security bureaucracy.
“I am pushing 80 and this has been going on now for two years,” said Joan, a former special-needs educator, in a recent email. “I hope my health holds up as I have no life. What a way to treat an American citizen in a wheelchair who can teach the deaf to talk, the dyslexic to read and the stuttering to talk. I am just useless living in a room.”
Joan has another Social Security appointment scheduled this week.
Philip Moeller is an expert on retirement, aging, and health. He is co-author of The New York Times bestseller, “Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security,” and a research fellow at the Center for Aging & Work at Boston College. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @PhilMoeller on Twitter.