Q&A: Divorced, and in debt

Dear Liz: I recently got divorced and found myself in about $50,000 of credit card debt. While I’m struggling to slowly pay off this debt, I do have some money saved in a tax-sheltered annuity as well as a small Roth IRA. Should I use those, take a personal loan or file for bankruptcy?

Answer: A good rule of thumb is to leave retirement money alone for retirement. Early withdrawals can trigger taxes and penalties that eat up one quarter to one half of what you take out. You can always withdraw your contributions tax free from a Roth, but any earnings can trigger taxes and penalties. The biggest cost, though, is the loss of future tax-deferred compounding that can equal 10 times or more of what you take out.

If your credit is good, low-rate balance transfer offers could help you lower the interest rate on your debt so you can pay it off faster. A personal loan from a credit union, your bank or an online lender could work if it offers a low, fixed rate and a repayment term of five years or less.

If you can’t pay this debt off within five years, then you should talk to both a credit counselor (visit the National Foundation for Credit Counseling at www.nfcc.org) and a bankruptcy attorney (referrals from the National Assn. of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys at www.nacba.org).

Q&A: Divorced survivor benefits

Dear Liz: After death, do ex-spousal Social Security benefits continue?

Answer: Any checks you’re getting from Social Security are supposed to stop when you die. But you’re probably asking what happens after the death of your ex-spouse.

The good news is that you would be eligible for divorced survivor benefits. Instead of receiving a check based on half of what your ex was getting, your payment will be based on the entire check your ex was getting. (With either benefit, the check would be reduced if you started benefits before your own full retirement age.)

Benefits for divorced spouses are available if the marriage lasted at least 10 years. Divorced spousal benefits end if the person remarries, but divorced survivor benefits can continue if the survivor remarries after reaching age 60.

Q&A: Social Security divorced spousal benefits

Dear Liz: A friend was told by Social Security that she could not collect spousal benefits on her ex-husband’s work record because she did not have his Social Security number. How can I help her find it?

Answer: Your friend may have run into a new Social Security employee, or at least one who is not well-informed. Social Security says on its website that people who qualify for divorced spousal benefits do not need their exes’ Social Security number as long as they can provide enough identifying information for the agency to locate his record. She does need to have a marriage certificate and divorce decree along with her own birth certificate.

To qualify for divorced spousal benefits, the marriage must have lasted 10 years and your friend must currently be unmarried

Q&A: Divorce and mortgages

Dear Liz: Our daughter was divorced in 2012 from her husband of 20 years. He still lives in the house they shared and she lives elsewhere. He pays the mortgage. When she asks him to remove her name from the mortgage, he says she is harassing him. What are her legal options and steps to accomplish this?

Answer: The couple’s divorce agreement should have addressed this issue. If he agreed to take sole responsibility for the mortgage, she should consult an attorney about holding him to that agreement.

It’s not as simple as requesting that the lender remove her name from the loan, said Emily Doskow, author of “Nolo’s Essential Guide to Divorce.”

“Every once in a while you’ll come across a mortgage lender that is willing to release one of the parties,” Doskow said. “But that’s very, very rare.”

Typically, getting her off the loan would require him to refinance or sell the home. If for some reason the divorce agreement doesn’t address the debt, your daughter still has considerable leverage if her name is on the deed. If she’s still an owner of the home, she can force a sale, Doskow said.

If she’s not on the deed, her options are limited. She may need to ask a court to intervene, Doskow said.

As long as she’s on the mortgage, her credit and ability to buy another home are tied up with her ex. If he stops making the mortgage payments — because he can’t afford them or out of spite — her credit would be trashed, since they are jointly responsible for the debt.

This is why it’s so important to separate all credit accounts and refinance any loans before a divorce is final. Otherwise, the two exes can be tied together financially, if not for life then at least for the life of a loan.

Q&A: Social Security spousal benefits and divorce

Dear Liz: My former husband is 11 years older than I am, and we were married for 15 years.

I am 54 and have never remarried. When I turn 62, can I claim spousal benefits based on his work record because he will be past full retirement age? Or do I have to be at my own full retirement age of 67 before I can claim the divorced benefit?

I was thinking that I could start claiming spousal benefits at 62 and then wait until I am 70 (letting my benefit grow). At that point, we can see which benefit is larger — half of his benefit or my full benefit. He has made much more money than I have through the years, but he has also been unemployed off and on while I have been employed consistently.

Answer: You can claim divorced spousal benefits as early as age 62 long as you remain unmarried and your marriage lasted at least 10 years.

But you lose the option to switch from a spousal benefit to your own benefit if you start Social Security before your own full retirement age.

So if your plan is to get the maximum benefit, it’s important to wait until you turn 67 to apply. At that point, you can file a restricted application for spousal benefits only and receive an amount equal to half of your ex’s benefit while letting your own grow a guaranteed 8% each year until age 70, when your benefit maxes out.

Q&A: Divorce and Social Security spousal benefits

Dear Liz: My ex-wife and I were married for 12 years. She is 55. I am 64 and collecting Social Security. At what age can she apply for spousal benefits?

Answer: If she doesn’t remarry, she can apply for spousal benefits as early as age 62. If she applies early, though, she would lose the option to switch to her own benefit later if it’s larger.

To preserve that option, she would need to wait until her own full retirement age, which is 67 for those born in 1960 and later.

Dear Liz: My husband is 68 and I am 59. My husband is deferring his Social Security to age 70 to get the largest amount. If he predeceases me, at what age would I be eligible for 100% of my husband’s current Social Security benefit? Would I have to wait to age 66 for that benefit?

Answer: If your husband should die, you could apply for survivor’s benefits as early as age 60 (or 50 if you are disabled). Your benefit would be reduced to reflect the early start. To get 100% of your husband’s benefit, you typically would have to wait until your own full retirement age. If you were born in 1956, that would be 66 and four months.

There’s a wrinkle here, though. By waiting to start his benefit, your husband is earning what are known as delayed retirement credits that increase his benefit by 8% annually (or two-thirds of 1% each month). Your survivor’s benefit would be based on the benefit he’s earned, including the delayed retirement credits, even if he should die before age 70. So at least some of the effect of your early start would be offset by the fact that he delayed benefits.

If your husband had started benefits early, by contrast, your survivor’s benefit would have been based on that permanently reduced amount. By waiting, your husband is ensuring that you will get the largest survivor benefit possible while increasing the odds that you as a couple will get the most out of Social Security.

Q&A: Social Security spousal benefits and divorce

Dear Liz: My former husband is 11 years older than I, and we were married for 15 years. I am 54 and have not remarried.

When I turn 62, can I claim a spousal benefit based on his Social Security record because he’s already reached full retirement? Or do I have to be at my own full retirement age of 67 before I can claim the divorced benefit?

I was thinking that I could start claiming a spousal benefit at 62 and then wait until I am 70 to see which benefit is larger — half of his or mine with three years of 8% annual delayed retirement credits added in. If mine is more at that point, I could switch.

Is that possible or is that double dipping? He has made much more money than I have through the years, but he has also been unemployed off and on. I have made less money, but have been employed consistently throughout my life, so I’m not sure whose will be more when it all shakes out.

Answer: If you start spousal benefits or divorced spousal benefits early, your check will be permanently reduced and you’ll lose the option to switch later — even if your own benefit would have been larger.

When you apply for Social Security benefits before your full retirement age, you’ll be “deemed” to be applying for both your own benefit and any spousal benefits to which you’re entitled. If your spousal benefit is larger, you’ll be given your own benefit plus an amount to make up the difference. Once you start your benefit, it stops growing except for cost-of-living increases.

It’s only if you wait until your full retirement age to file that you have the option of filing a “restricted” application for spousal benefits only. Then you’ll preserve the option of switching to your own benefit later if it’s larger.

Q&A: Social Security death benefits for a divorced spouse

Dear Liz: I have heard conflicting information about Social Security death benefits for a divorced spouse. We divorced after 18 years and I have not remarried. What percent of his benefit is available to me?

My own Social Security is low as it started as a disability payment and then converted to regular Social Security when I turned 65.

To the best of my knowledge, my former spouse was getting the maximum Social Security benefit. He was a very high wage earner. Can you provide a simple-to-understand answer? I have received conflicting information from numerous sources including three separate people at the Social Security Administration.

Answer: It’s concerning that you would get varying answers from Social Security representatives, since the answer is simple given the facts you describe.

You should be entitled to a survivor’s benefit that equals 100% of what your ex was getting when he died, said economist Laurence Kotlikoff, a Social Security expert who co-wrote “Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security.”

Your marriage lasted the required 10 years, and you would be starting survivor benefits after your own full retirement age, so the amount would not be reduced to reflect an early start.

The fact that you’re unmarried is irrelevant in this case. Survivors’ benefits are available even to those who remarry, as long as the subsequent marriage happens after the recipient reached age 60.

That’s different from spousal benefits for the divorced, which aren’t available after remarriage at any age unless the subsequent marriage ends.

It’s possible that some or all of the people you queried didn’t understand your question or thought you were asking about spousal rather than survivor benefits. Another possibility is that they just don’t know the rules.

That’s not unusual, Kotlikoff said. Social Security regulations are complex, and not all of its employees are experienced. Kotlikoff said he often hears from people who have been told things that are “outright wrong, partially wrong, incomplete or confused.”

Educating yourself with Kotlikoff’s book and the Social Security’s own site may be a better solution than relying on its employees for answers.

Q&A: Social Security benefits and divorce

Dear Liz: You’ve been answering questions about ex-spouses and Social Security benefits. My first marriage was longer than 10 years, and I was the primary earner. My ex remarried but later divorced again.

Does his getting remarried nullify his claims forevermore — or is his ability to claim spousal benefits based on my income back on the table as long as he remains unmarried?

Answer: It’s the latter. Your ex can claim spousal benefits based on your work record as long as your marriage to him lasted at least 10 years and he is not currently married.

Q&A: Social Security and Divorce

Dear Liz: Can my 63-year-old ex-husband, who was a slacker who never worked, collect on my Social Security? I am 59 and happily remarried. He hasn’t remarried. We were married for 25 years before I left him.

Answer: Since you were married for more than 10 years, your former husband can apply for spousal benefits based on your work record. He can’t do so, however, until you’re old enough to get retirement benefits, which means he has to wait another three years until you’re 62. If you were still married, he would have to wait until you actually applied for your own retirement benefits to get a spousal benefit. That requirement is waived for divorced spouses to keep a vengeful ex from deliberately withholding the right to benefits. His ability to claim spousal benefits on your work record would end if he remarried.
Any spousal checks he gets won’t affect or reduce your benefit or any benefits claimed by your current spouse. Should you die first, both your current and your former husbands could claim survivors’ benefits — again, without affecting each other’s checks