Research and Analysis by Michael J. Brein

Widows Waiting to Wed? (Re)Marriage and Economic Incentives in Social Security Widow Benefits
ORES Working Paper No. 89 (released January 2001)
by Michael J. Brein, Stacy Dickert-Conlin, and David A. Weaver

In this paper we focus on an age restriction for remarriage in the Social Security system to determine if individuals respond to economic incentives for marriage. Aged widow(er) benefits are paid by the federal government to persons whose deceased spouses worked in Social Security covered employment. A widow(er) is eligible to receive benefits if she or he is at least age 60. If a widow(er) remarries before age 60, she or he forfeits the benefit and, therefore, faces a marriage penalty. Under current law, there is no penalty if the remarriage occurs at 60 years of age or later. The Social Security rules on remarriage have changed over time. Only since 1979 have widow(er)s been allow to marry at or after age 60 and not face reductions in benefit amounts.

We investigate whether the age-60 remarriage rule affects the timing of marriage and whether the elimination of the marriage penalty in 1979 encouraged widows 60 or older to marry. For this study, we primarily use Vital Statistics data from the National Center for Health Statistics.

Our major findings are as follows. In 1979, there was an increase in the marriage rate of widows 60 or older. This suggests many widows in this age group chose not to marry until the marriage penalty they faced was removed. Also, in the post-1979 period, there was a drop in marriage rates immediately prior to age 60 and an increase after this age. We do not observe this pattern in the period before 1979, and we do not observe it for divorced women, who generally are not subject to the age-60 remarriage rule. These findings suggest that the age-60 remarriage rule affects the timing of marriage and has the most influence on women who are very close to age 60.