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.

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.

Divorced retiree entitled to spousal Social Security benefits

Dear Liz: My daughter, 63, has been recently amicably divorced and receives a small alimony ($1,000). Her ex-husband of 30 years is a doctor who just retired. Is she entitled to part of his Social Security? Neither has remarried.

Answer: Because they were married for more than 10 years, your daughter should qualify for spousal benefits, which can equal up to half of her ex’s benefit at his full retirement age. That amount would be permanently discounted if she applies before her own full retirement age (which is 66).

The ex’s marital status doesn’t matter, although your daughter’s does. If she remarries, she will lose access to spousal benefits as a divorced spouse. This is just one of the ways that spousal benefits differ from survivor’s benefits, which are based on 100% of the earner’s benefit and which widows and widowers can receive even if they remarry after age 60.

How divorced people can get spousal benefits

Dear Liz: I’ve been reading with interest your answers to questions about Social Security spousal benefits, particularly those available to divorced spouses. What if the former spouse is now remarried for more than 10 years, and the current spouse is receiving benefits? Are spousal benefits still available and how are they calculated?

Answer: The answer depends on whose earnings record we’re talking about, so a few pronouns might have helped clarify your question.

Let’s say you’re the earner. If your former spouse has remarried, then he is no longer eligible to receive spousal benefits based on your earnings record. Only divorced people whose marriages lasted 10 years and who are not married can get spousal benefits based on an ex’s earnings record.

If you’re the one hoping for spousal benefits, however, it doesn’t matter that your ex has remarried as long as you’re unmarried. Your ex’s current spouse and any previous spouses who qualify can receive spousal benefits. The amounts they get don’t affect any other spouse’s checks or the checks received by the earner (your ex).

Spousal benefits can be up to half the earner’s “primary insurance amount,” which is the check the earner would get if she started Social Security at full retirement age. The benefits are permanently discounted if the spouse or ex-spouse begins receiving them before his own full retirement age.

All my exes and Social Security taxes: a quiz

PolygamyThe questions I get about Social Security have made it clear how incredibly complicated this benefits system can be. So here’s a little story to illustrate one important facet of Social Security: spousal benefits.

Jack was a charming guy—maybe too charming. He enjoyed the ladies and the ladies enjoyed him, at least until they discovered they weren’t the only ladies in his life. This led to more than a little drama, and a few divorces.

Jack first married at 20, to Mary. Their marriage lasted 10 years and produced two children before breaking up. Mary went on to marry again and had a happy 30 years until her second husband died.

Jack’s second marriage was to Anne. That lasted five years. Anne never remarried.

After a few years playing the field, Jack married a third time, to Jo Beth. They separated after nine years and divorced a couple years later. Jo Beth remarried and had kids with her second husband. This marriage also ended in divorce after thirteen years.

For the past decade, Jack has been happily married to Dianne. Both are 62, but Jack has decided not to retire for a few years (all those divorces took their financial toll).

Now for the question: which of Jack’s wives qualify for Social Security spousal benefits based on Jack’s earnings record?

The answer: Mary and Jo Beth. Both were married to Jack for at least 10 years, and neither is currently married. Mary and Jo Beth also would be eligible for benefits based on their second husbands’ records (Mary as a survivor, Jo Beth as a divorced spouse) but they wouldn’t be able to claim more than one benefit. They would typically get whatever benefit is largest: the one based on Jack’s earning record, the one based on the second spouse’s earnings record, or the one based on her own earnings record.

Why wouldn’t Dianne qualify for spousal benefits, since she’s the current spouse? Because Jack hasn’t applied for his own benefits. That doesn’t matter to the former wives, since the ex’s cooperation isn’t required for them to start getting spousal benefits. The ex merely has to be old enough to qualify for retirement benefits (which you typically are at age 62.). If you’re currently married, though, you can’t start spousal benefits unless your “earner” has applied.

Jack could allow Dianne to start benefits with a technique called “file and suspend,” in which he would file for benefits and then immediately suspend his application. That would allow his own benefit to continue to grow while allowing her to get checks based on his earnings record.

So conceivably, three women and Jack himself eventually could be earning benefits based solely on Jack’s earnings records. The amounts the women get wouldn’t affect or reduce each other’s benefit, or his.

Most people can’t squeeze quite that much mileage out of the Social Security taxes they pay. But since spousal benefits could result in a bigger check than you might get on your own, they’re worth knowing about.

 

Divorced? You may qualify for half of ex’s Social Security

Dear Liz: Many years ago I read about spousal benefits based on an ex-spouse’s Social Security earnings record. Is there a minimum length of time of the marriage to qualify? How do I apply for this benefit? I am within nine months of retirement.

Answer: You can qualify for Social Security spousal benefits based on an ex’s work record as long as:

•The marriage lasted 10 years or more.

•You are 62 or older and unmarried.

•Your ex-spouse is eligible to begin receiving his or her own Social Security benefit (even if he or she hasn’t applied yet).

•Your own benefit is less than the spousal benefit you would get based on his or her work record.

Any benefits you receive based on his or her record won’t affect what your ex receives, or what his or her current or other former spouses receive.

As with regular spousal benefits, the amount you get will be permanently discounted if you apply before you’ve reached your own full retirement age (which is currently 66 and will climb to 67 in a few years).

How to get an ex’s Social Security information

Dear Liz: I am 63 and divorced after being married over 10 years. I was told by our local Social Security office that I need my ex’s Social Security number in order to find out whether spousal benefits based on his record would be more than benefits based on my own record. I have his full name and date of birth, but I would rather not ask him for his Social Security number. If I do really need that, do you have any suggestions? Would some other type of information suffice?

Answer: The information you received from your local Social Security office is incorrect. You do not need your ex’s Social Security number to apply for spousal benefits, said Jonathan Peterson, AARP executive communications director and author of “Social Security for Dummies.” The more identifying information you can provide, the better, but the Social Security Administration can track down his records without it.

That said, you might want to dig around in your old files to see whether you can find a joint tax return, which will certainly have his number, or an old health insurance card, which might.

Spousal benefits are available to divorced people as long as they were married at least 10 years, are 62 or older and are currently not married.