Q&A: Social Security rules differ for divorced spouses and divorced survivors. We explain

Dear Liz: My spouse’s parents were married for 11 years. They divorced at age 32 and my mother-in-law remarried at 42. My mother-in-law and her ex are now 82. Her husband is 93 and in poor health. When her husband dies, she does not get his pension. Her current Social Security benefit is $850 a month. Her husband receives $1,200 while my father-in-law’s benefit is $2,500 a month. She is convinced that when her current husband dies, she will be eligible for her ex-husband’s $2,500 benefit. I think that only happens when her ex dies, but she can get 50% while he is still alive. What is correct?

Answer: You’ve got it right.

People may be eligible for benefits from ex-spouses’ work records if the marriage lasted at least 10 years.

While the ex is alive, your mother-in-law could qualify for divorced spousal benefits of up to 50% of his benefit at full retirement age — but only if she is currently unmarried. If her ex dies, she might be eligible for divorced survivor benefits of up to 100% of the benefit he was receiving — but only if she is widowed or divorced. (People can receive divorced survivor benefits while married, but only if they married at 60 or later.)

She would receive benefits based on her ex’s work record only if the check is larger than her own.

The different rules for divorced spousal versus divorced survivor benefits can be complicated, so it’s not surprising that she’s confused. Let’s use the numbers you provided to make this somewhat clearer.

If she is widowed and her ex is still alive, she would get a divorced survivor benefit of $1,250, because it’s (slightly) larger than the $1,200 survivor benefit from her husband’s record. (Her own $850 benefit would essentially go away, so her household income would drop pretty dramatically from $2,050 plus the pension to $1,250.)

If her ex should subsequently die, she would be eligible for divorced survivor benefits of $2,500 (or whatever the ex was receiving at the time of his death).

There are some caveats here.

Divorced spousal benefits are based on the ex’s “primary insurance amount,” or what he would receive at his full retirement age. For someone born in 1940, that was 65 years and six months. Your mother-in-law would not be eligible for any delayed retirement credits her ex may have earned by putting off his application until after his full retirement age.

On the other hand, she wouldn’t be penalized if he started his benefit before full retirement age. The bottom line is that her divorced spousal benefit could be somewhat more or less than 50% of what he is currently receiving, depending on when he applied.

Survivor and divorced survivor benefits, on the other hand, are based on what someone was actually getting when they died. An early start can stunt those benefits whereas a later start can increase them.

That’s true of regular survivor benefits as well, and why it is so important for the higher earner in a married couple to delay filing as long as possible. The larger benefit can really help when the first spouse dies and one of the couple’s two checks ends.

Your mother-in-law’s financial prospects were made even worse by the decision to get a “single life” payout from the pension rather than a “joint and survivor” option. The joint and survivor option would have meant accepting a smaller benefit, but it would have lasted for your mother-in-law’s lifetime rather than ending at her husband’s death.

A married worker can’t choose the single life option without spousal consent, and spouses would be smart to consult a fee-only financial planner before they agree to give up a lifetime stream of income.

Q&A: Claiming divorced spousal benefits

Dear Liz: My son is 59, and his ex-wife died approximately 12 years ago. She was a nurse and paid more into Social Security than he has. Is he entitled to her Social Security benefits as indicated in your article? How does he file and get more information? Must he wait until he is 62?

Answer: If their marriage lasted at least 10 years, he could begin divorced survivor benefits as early as age 60, or age 50 if he is disabled. (He can remarry at age 60 or later and still receive survivor benefits.)

Benefits are reduced if he applies before his full retirement age, which will be 67. Also, starting before full retirement age means the benefits are subject to the earnings test that withholds $1 in benefits for every $2 earned over a certain amount, which in 2023 will be $21,240.

If he earns too much to make starting early worthwhile, he could apply for divorced survivor benefits at age 67, when the earnings test goes away. His own retirement benefit could continue to grow until age 70, and he could switch at that point if his own benefit is larger.

But he’d be smart to consult a financial planner or use a Social Security strategy site, such as Maximize My Social Security or Social Security Solutions, to craft the best approach.

He can call Social Security’s toll free number at (800) 772-1213 for more information.

Q&A: Divorce complicates retirement benefits

Dear Liz: I was told by Social Security that because I remarried at 60, I could still collect half of my ex’s benefits once he died. He has just died, and half of his benefit is greater than my own retirement benefit. My current husband has not started benefits. If I collect half of my ex’s benefit but want to later switch to collecting benefits on my current husband’s record (once he starts to collect) or to survivor benefits should he die before I do, can I do that?

Answer: The short answer is yes, although you’ve confused divorced spousal benefits with divorced survivor benefits.

While your ex was alive, you might have been eligible for a divorced spousal benefit if you had remained unmarried. That benefit would have been up to 50% of your ex’s primary insurance amount (the amount he would receive at his full retirement age).

The rules changed once your ex died. As a divorced survivor who remarried after age 60, you are entitled to up to 100% of what your ex was receiving. The survivor benefit will be reduced if you haven’t yet reached your full retirement age (which is currently between age 66 and 67).

Survivor benefits also offer more flexibility to switch later than other types of benefits. If you choose to begin receiving a surviving divorced spouse’s benefit now, you can switch to your own benefit at any point through age 70, if your benefit is higher, says William Meyer, founder of the Social Security Solutions claiming strategies site. You also can switch to receiving spousal benefits from your current spouse’s record once he starts collecting, if that benefit is greater than what you’re receiving from your former spouse’s record.

Figuring out the right way to claim can be tricky, so consider consulting an advisor or using claiming strategy software to determine what’s best in your situation.

Q&A: Social Security and divorce

Dear Liz: I was married for 25 years. Most of the time, I was a full-time housewife and worked part time here and there. Social Security keeps telling me that I can’t collect on my ex’s Social Security until he dies. He is 74 and I am 72. I started collecting at 62 and don’t get that much in Social Security. Is it true that I have to wait until he dies to get more?

Answer: Technically, you’re eligible for a divorced spousal benefit that’s up to 50% of your ex’s benefit if your marriage lasted at least 10 years and you haven’t remarried. If that amount is less than your own benefit, though, you wouldn’t get anything extra.

The math changes if your ex should die. Then you would be eligible for a survivor’s benefit that is equal to what he was receiving. If that amount is larger than your own benefit, you would get the larger amount.

Q&A: Finding divorce papers

Dear Liz: My ex passed three years ago. I have done everything to try to get a copy of our divorce papers. I’ve lost out on three years of divorced survivor benefits. Social Security said I must have a copy of the papers before I apply. I have contacted the last places where he lived and sent money orders to the capital cities of those states to no avail. I’m at a loss.

Answer: You need to contact the court clerk in the county where your divorce was finalized and ask for instructions on getting a copy of the documents. Sending out money orders at random won’t do anything but waste your cash. (You may be able to get some money back if the money orders haven’t been cashed, however. You’ll need to contact the issuer, provide a receipt and pay a cancellation fee.)

Q&A: Divorced spousal benefits

Dear Liz: I never expected to be where I am financially. I work as an independent piano teacher and my present earnings are just enough to get by (which isn’t saying much in Southern California). I was married for 18 years and am now single, with no plans to remarry.

After I turn 66 next year, I intend to apply for Social Security benefits as a divorced spouse because my personal Social Security benefits would amount to just $875 a month and my ex is doing quite well (with earnings somewhere in the six-figure range). I anticipate the divorced spousal benefit will be greater than my own.

But I have a lot of questions. Will waiting until my former husband is 66 or 70 (he is 64) do anything to maximize my benefits? Will my Social Security be taxable? How much am I allowed to continue earning if I also receive Social Security?

Answer: Spousal and divorced spousal benefits can help lower earners get larger Social Security checks. Instead of just receiving their own retirement benefit, they can receive up to half of the higher earners’ benefits. But divorced spousal benefits are different in some important ways from the spousal benefits available to married people.

If you were still married, your benefit would be based on what your husband was actually getting. If he started benefits early, that would reduce the spousal benefit you could get. You also couldn’t get a spousal benefit unless he was already receiving his own.

Divorced spousal benefits are available if your marriage lasted at least 10 years and you aren’t currently married. If you meet those qualifications, you can apply for divorced spousal benefits as long as both you and your ex are at least 62 — he doesn’t need to have started his own benefit. Your divorced spousal benefit will be based on his “primary benefit amount,” or the benefit that would be available to him at his full retirement age (which is 66 years and two months, if he was born in 1955). It doesn’t matter if he starts early or late; that doesn’t affect what you as his ex would receive.

Spousal and divorced spousal benefits don’t receive delayed retirement credits, so there’s no advantage for you to delay beyond your own full retirement age (which is 66, if you were born in 1954) to start. Your benefit would have been reduced if you’d started early, though, so you were smart to wait.

Also, waiting until your full retirement age means you won’t be subjected to the earnings test that otherwise would reduce your checks by $1 for every $2 you earn over a certain amount ($17,640 in 2019).

Q&A: Sorting out the ex’s benefits

Dear Liz: I am 68 and plan to delay starting Social Security until I’m 70. I was married for 15 years prior to an amicable divorce 15 years ago. My ex just turned 60 and remains unmarried but may possibly marry at some future time. Does she qualify for survivor benefits? If so, what can I do to help ensure that she can efficiently apply for that benefit? We have already reviewed her option to assume my benefit upon my demise, but our benefits are virtually at identical levels and so that option does not seem applicable.

Answer: You seem to have confused divorced survivor benefits with divorced spousal benefits. She may well be eligible for both, but the only way you can help her get survivor benefits is to die. It’s great that you two are still friends, but that may be taking friendship a little too far.

Your ex is too young to claim a divorced spousal benefit, which isn’t available until she turns 62. She wouldn’t be able to get the full amount, which is 50% of your benefit at your full retirement age, until she reaches her own full retirement age. If she was born in 1959, then her full retirement age is 66 years and 10 months.

Furthermore, she would get a divorced spousal benefit only if that’s larger than her own benefit. If your benefits are “virtually identical,” that’s not likely to be the case.

If you should keel over tomorrow, though, she would be eligible to receive a divorced survivor benefit and put off receiving her own. Survivor benefits are available starting at age 60, or age 50 if the survivor is disabled, or at any age if the survivor cares for the dead person’s child who is under 16. Your ex also could marry at 60 or older without losing her survivor benefit. People who receive divorced spousal benefits, on the other hand, lose that benefit if they remarry.

Q&A: Rules about a dead ex’s pension

Dear Liz: My ex-spouse passed away recently. She had a pension, and I got 25% of the monthly amount (we had a Qualified Domestic Relations Order to divide the pension). I am now the survivor, but I still get the same amount every month. Shouldn’t I be getting what she received?

Answer: Pensions for survivors don’t always increase when the primary worker dies, and sometimes they go away entirely.

That makes them different from Social Security, where a surviving spouse would get the larger of the two checks a couple received. A qualifying divorced spouse may also qualify to get a Social Security check equal to what the deceased was getting.

What happens to the pension probably depends on the details of your QDRO. Pension companies don’t always give survivors accurate information, so check with your lawyer to see what is supposed to happen according to your agreement.

Q&A: Claiming an ex’s benefits

Dear Liz: You recently answered a question pertaining to divorced spousal Social Security benefits. Social Security told me years ago that I had to wait till my former husband died before receiving a part of his benefits. We divorced after a long-term marriage, and I remarried after age 60. Is this still true for remarried former spouses? My ex does collect Social Security, and I collect my small benefit (both of us started at full retirement age).

Answer: The information you received was correct. You can’t get spousal benefits from your ex’s work record if you’re married to someone else. You can, however, get survivor benefits if your ex dies, as long as you remarried after you turned 60.

Q&A: About the ex’s Social Security

Dear Liz: I’ve been divorced since 2004. My ex received half of all my pension funds and lives off that and his Social Security. I have not yet drawn Social Security, but I am retired. Am I eligible to receive part of his Social Security? How does that work?

Answer: Yes, if your marriage lasted at least 10 years. If you were born before Jan. 2, 1954, you also have the option of filing a “restricted application” for divorced spousal benefits while allowing your own benefit to continue growing.

Divorced spousal benefits, like regular spousal benefits, allow you to get an amount of up to half your ex’s benefit. The amount would be reduced if you start before your own full retirement age, which is currently 66 and rising to 67 for those born in 1960 and later. If you start at age 62, for example, you would get about one-third of his benefit, rather than half. (Your claim doesn’t take money away from him or any of his current or former spouses, in case you were concerned.)

Regular spousal benefits require that the primary worker has started his or her own retirement benefit. Divorced spousal benefits don’t have that requirement: You both just need to be at least 62. Also, the divorced benefit is based on the primary earner’s benefit at his or her full retirement age. With regular spousal benefits, the amount is typically based on what the primary earner actually receives, which could be less if the primary earner started benefits early.

If you were born on or after Jan. 2, 1954, you can’t file a restricted application. Instead, you’ll be deemed to be applying for both your own benefit and the divorced spousal benefit, and given the larger of the two amounts. You can’t switch to your own benefit later.

If your ex should die before you do, you also would be eligible for a divorced survivor benefit that is up to 100% of his. That has the unfortunate effect of making your ex worth more to you dead than alive.