Divorced spousal benefits cause confusion

Dear Liz: You’ve been writing about Social Security and how people can qualify for benefits based on a spouse’s or ex-spouse’s earnings record. Please add that given the parameters you already cite, a divorced spouse may remarry after the age of 60 and collect Social Security from the ex. However, if a person is collecting a public pension, any Social Security, whether one’s own or that of the former spouse, will be offset, possibly to the extent that one cannot collect anything from that former spouse. It is important to have all of the information.

Answer: It is indeed — but you’re incorrect about the availability of divorced spouse benefits after remarriage.

Only spouses or ex-spouses who are receiving survivors’ benefits may remarry after 60 without worrying about losing their checks. If the primary earner is still alive, the rules are different. Here’s what Social Security has to say on its website: “Generally, we cannot pay benefits if the divorced spouse remarries someone other than the former spouse, unless the latter marriage ends (whether by death, divorce or annulment), or the marriage is to a person entitled to certain types of Social Security auxiliary or survivor’s benefits.”

People who are eligible for pensions from the government or from a job not covered by Social Security should learn about the offsets that affect their benefit. The Social Security website has information about these offsets at http://www.ssa.gov/gpo-wep/. Information also is available by calling 1-800-772-1213.

Spousal vs. survivor benefits: the key differences

Dear Liz: I am 66 years old. When I was 60, my husband of 42 years died. He was a banker with more than 40 years of work history at a good income level. I remarried a year later. When I was 62, I was downsized and took early Social Security benefits based on my first husband’s earnings record. This amounts to about $2,000 a month. It would have been about $2,500 at full retirement age (66) and about $3,000 at age 70. I was not advised about survivor’s benefits at all or about any variance of survivor’s benefits versus Social Security based on my deceased husband’s earnings. Do you think I would have gotten a bigger benefit amount if I had taken survivor’s benefits at age 62?

Answer: No, because survivor’s benefits are what you’re getting.

Both spousal benefits and survivor’s benefits are based on the earnings record of the other person in a couple (whom we’ll call the “primary earner”). The maximum spousal check is 50% of the primary worker’s benefit. As with other Social Security benefits, the amount you get is permanently discounted if you apply before your own full retirement age.

Spousal benefits are available to current and former spouses, although former spouses must have been married for at least 10 years to the primary earner and must be currently single. (In other words, you can’t have remarried, unless that marriage has ended as well.)

Survivor’s benefits, on the other hand, can be up to 100% of the primary worker’s benefit. Survivor’s benefits based on a deceased spouse’s earnings record are not available to those who remarry before age 60, but can be claimed by those who remarry after that point.

Since the biggest Social Security benefit is around $2,500 a month and you’ve remarried, it’s clear that what you’re getting is the survivor’s benefit, discounted because you applied early.

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.

Spousal vs. survivor benefits: a primer

Dollar mazeJudging from emails and comments, plenty of people are confused about how Social Security benefits for spouses and ex-spouses are supposed to work. That’s unfortunate, since these benefits can help many people get larger checks than what their own earnings record will give them. If you are or ever have been married to someone whose earnings are substantially greater than your own, you need to know how this works.

First, some basics. Spousal and survivor benefits are based on the work record of what I’m calling the “earner” (the other spouse). You can’t get both your own benefit (based on your work record) AND a full spousal or survivor benefits on top of that. You typically get the largest benefit for which you qualify. (In some cases, you’ll get your own benefit plus an amount that together equals the largest benefit for which you qualify.)

Here are a few key points:

Spousal benefits (for current and former spouses) are based on 50% of the earner’s benefit at the earner’s full retirement age. Full retirement age is currently 66 and will be 67 for people born after 1960. If the spouse applies for benefits before the spouse’s own full retirement age, the benefit will be permanently discounted.

  • If you’re currently married, the earner must have already applied for Social Security benefits for you to apply for spousal benefits. The earner does have the option to “file and suspend,” where the earner applies for benefits and then immediately suspends the application. That allows the spouse to apply for spousal benefits while the earner’s benefit can be left alone to grow.
  • If you’re divorced (but were married at least 10 years and haven’t remarried), the earner needn’t have applied to start Social Security benefits but the earner needs to be at least 62. If you remarry, you can’t apply for benefits as a divorced spouse unless that subsequent marriage ends.

Spousal benefits don’t reduce what the earner receives (or what other current and former spouses may receive).

If you wait until your own full retirement age to apply, you can start receiving spousal benefits and then switch to your own benefit when it maxes out at age 70. For high earners, this “claim now, claim more later” can add tens of thousands of dollars to the lifetime amounts you receive from Social Security. If you start benefits early, however, that option isn’t available to you.

Survivors benefits (for current and former spouses) can be up to 100% of the earner’s Social Security benefit. If the earner hadn’t begun receiving Social Security checks, the survivor’s benefit is based on what the earner would receive at full retirement age. If the earner was receiving Social Security when he or she died, the survivor’s benefit is based on that amount the earner was actually receiving. (This is why it’s often smart for the bigger earner to delay starting Social Security at least until full retirement age, if not longer, especially if the earner’s survivor will depend on that benefit.)

As with other Social Security benefits, applying for survivor benefits before you reach your own full retirement age will result in a reduced check. However, with survivor’s benefits, you can receive a reduced check as early as age 60. (The earliest you can get spousal benefits is 62.) The starting age is even earlier—50—if you are disabled and the disability started before or within 7 years of the worker’s death, or at any age if you take care of the deceased earner’s child who is under age 16 or is disabled and receives benefits on the worker’s record.

Unlike spousal benefits, a late remarriage won’t cut off your checks. If you remarry after you reach age 60 (or age 50 if you’re disabled), that marriage will not affect your eligibility for survivors benefits.

AARP has a primer about how to maximize your Social Security benefits that’s well worth reading. T. Rowe Price has a free calculator to help you determine the best time to take benefits. If you want a more robust tool, check out www.MaximizeMySocialSecurity.com for a $40 version that allows you to play with more