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

Q&A: Financial aid and divorce

Dear Liz: My ex-wife and I are about to start the financial aid process for our eldest child, who goes to college in the fall. My ex happens to have a higher income than me, and has asked me if I’d be willing to have different aid scenarios calculated based on our different incomes and assets. From all the research I’ve done, though, it seems she is the one who needs to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, since she’s the custodial parent. It’s not possible to choose who the custodial parent is for the purposes of financial aid, right?

Answer: It may be possible, but you have to make the choice well before you file the FAFSA form.

For federal financial aid purposes, the custodial parent whose information is used to calculate financial need is the parent with whom the child lived the most during the 12 months before the FAFSA is filed. With joint custody, the custodial parent is typically the one who provided the most cash support.

Some divorced parents opt to revise their children’s living arrangements so that the lower earner becomes the custodial parent. That may require a trip to court to revise a custody agreement. Also, the financial situation of any stepparents would have to be part of the equation, since the income and assets of the custodial parent’s spouse (the stepparent) are factored into the federal formula.

Q&A: Medical debt liability and separation

Dear Liz: You recently answered a question about whether one spouse can be held responsible for the other’s credit card debt. My husband and I are separated and he recently was diagnosed with cancer. He is unemployed with no health insurance and high hospital bills and back child support payments. In the event of his death, will I be liable for his debts?

Answer: You need to talk to an attorney to determine your liability for his medical bills, since it depends on state law. Some states don’t hold spouses liable for these bills if they’re legally separated, while others do. In any case, his estate will still owe the unpaid child support, and child support typically has a higher priority for payment than most other creditor’s claims when an estate is settled. In general, creditors have to be paid before the rest of the assets can be distributed to heirs.

Q&A: Social Security spousal benefits and divorce

Dear Liz: My fiancé was married to a wealthy woman for over 10 years. Will he lose his opportunity to use her earnings record as the basis for his Social Security retirement benefits if we get married?

Answer: The short answer is yes. Spousal benefits for divorced people are available only to those who remain unmarried. Many people confuse spousal benefits with survivors benefits. Survivors benefits for widows, widowers and divorced spouses of the deceased can continue after the recipient remarries, but only if the remarriage occurs after age 60.
You shouldn’t assume that your fiancé’s spousal benefits necessarily will be larger than his own benefit. His ex could have been wealthy without being a high earner. Even if she did, 100% of his own benefit could be worth more than 50% of hers. To find out for sure, he needs to contact the Social Security Administration.

Q&A: Social Security Benefits and Divorce

Dear Liz: I am 53 and divorced. My ex-husband died at the age of 49 and had contributed significantly to Social Security. I don’t plan to remarry. Would I be able to make any claim on his record as an ex-spouse when I reach age 62, or would he have had to reach retirement age for this to be possible?

Answer: If your marriage lasted at least 10 years, you could get the same benefits as a widow or widower. We’ll assume your ex was “fully insured” under Social Security, which means he paid enough into the system to qualify for benefits.

For the sake of brevity, we’ll also assume that you’re not disabled or caring for his minor or disabled child. (You could still qualify for benefits if any of these were true, but the rules would be somewhat different.)

Your survivors’ checks would be based on what he would have received had he survived until retirement (a sum known as his primary insurance amount). If he had been 62 or older when he died and had started receiving Social Security checks, your benefit would have been based on what he was actually receiving.

You can start survivors’ benefits as early as age 60 if you’re not disabled. If you start benefits before your own full retirement age, however, your benefits will be reduced because of the early start. Another thing to keep in mind is that if you don’t apply until age 62 or later and your own retirement benefits are larger than your widows’ benefit, you’ll get your own benefit instead.

On the other hand, you’re allowed to switch from his benefit to your own at any point between age 62 and age 70. It’s possible that your own benefit, left untouched to grow, eventually could exceed your survivors’ benefit. Obviously, this decision will involve crunching some numbers to see which approach makes the most sense. The Social Security Administration suggests you contact your local office or call (800) 772-1213 to learn how much you could receive on your ex’s work record, since that’s not information you can access online.

One other thing you should know: Since you’d be getting survivors’ rather than spousal benefits, you could remarry after you reach age 60 without endangering your checks. Those whose exes are still alive have to refrain from remarrying if they want their spousal benefits to continue.