Q&A: Social Security spousal benefits

Dear Liz: I am 61 and going through a second divorce. Would I be able to start drawing my first husband’s Social Security now or would I have to wait till I am 62 later this year? Also, could I draw off my second husband’s work record, since he made more money? Which would benefit me more?

Answer: To qualify for spousal benefits as a divorced spouse, the marriage has to have lasted at least 10 years and your ex must qualify for Social Security retirement or disability benefits. The minimum age to qualify for retirement or spousal benefits is 62.

If your ex is 62 or older but hasn’t applied for retirement benefits, you can receive spousal benefits if you have been divorced at least two years.

Even if you qualify to start benefits early, though, you probably should wait. When you apply for spousal benefits before your own full retirement age of 66, you’re permanently locking yourself into a smaller payment (you’d get 35% of your ex’s benefit, rather than 50%). You also lose the ability to switch to your own benefit later, even if it’s larger.

When you apply early, Social Security forces you to apply for both your own benefit and the spousal benefit. You’re given the larger of the two. If you wait until 66, you can file what’s called a restricted application and get just the spousal benefit, retaining the option to change to your own benefit when it maxes out at age 70.

Most people will live well past the “break even” point where they’ll receive more by delaying Social Security than they would by starting early. More important, a bigger Social Security check also serves as a kind of longevity insurance. The longer you live, the more likely you are to outlive your other assets and end up relying on Social Security for most if not all of your income.

As a single woman, you’re in greater danger of poverty than most retirees. You could wind up living for decades on an inadequate check if you’re not careful about how you claim your benefit.

To find out the amounts you’d get from spousal benefits, call Social Security at (800) 772-1213. Also find out what your own benefit would be at 62, 66 and 70, for comparison purposes.

AARP and T. Rowe Price have free calculators that can help you make this decision.MaximizeMySocialSecurity.com offers a more sophisticated calculator for about $40.

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