Q&A: Social Security divorced spouse benefits

Dear Liz: You recently answered a woman about collecting on her ex-husband’s Social Security record. You said she was eligible for a spousal benefit if they were married at least 10 years, which they were. I think you should have added that the spouse needs to be collecting their own Social Security when you apply. A Social Security rep told me I had to wait till my ex retired and then I’d automatically get the larger benefit. I waited. Eventually I asked my ex and he said he had started collecting Social Security some months previously. I applied and did get a retroactive payment.

Answer: Unfortunately, people don’t always get correct information from Social Security representatives.

You did not have to wait for your ex to begin receiving Social Security to apply for a divorced spousal benefit. While that’s a requirement for still-married couples — the primary worker must apply for their own benefit to trigger a spousal benefit — a divorced spouse has only to wait until their ex turns 62 and is eligible to receive Social Security retirement checks.

The representative you talked to may not have understood that you were talking about an ex rather than a current husband, or the rep may have been confused about the rules.

Because Social Security can be so complicated, it makes sense to educate yourself as much as possible about the rules. Books like Jonathan Peterson’s “Social Security for Dummies” can be helpful; just make sure to get the latest edition, since the rules for spousal benefits changed substantially in 2015.

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