September 17, 2014 in Retirement

Choose best ex for Social Security benefits

Dear Senior Living Adviser,

I was married to my first husband for 16 years, so I thought I would have qualified to receive part of his Social Security amount if it was a lot more than mine. However, I remarried for a very brief time many years later, so I thought that I would not be able to receive Social Security benefits based on my first ex-husband’s earnings record. Is that correct? Or could I still qualify to receive his larger amount? I can’t seem to find any answers on the Social Security website.

Thank you,

— Anna Angle

Dear Anna,

What you may have missed on the Social Security website is, “If your divorced spouse remarries, he or she generally cannot collect benefits on your record unless their later marriage ends (whether by death, divorce or annulment).”

Barbara Butrica and Karen Smith wrote an article titled “The Retirement Prospects of Divorced Women” in the Social Security Bulletin (Vol. 72 No. 1, 2012). Here’s a relevant excerpt:

A divorced woman’s Social Security retirement benefit depends not only on her own earnings history, but also to a large extent on her marital history and the earnings histories of her previous spouses. Furthermore, a divorced woman with multiple marriages could receive an auxiliary benefit from any of her former spouses.

Don’t confuse the word “any” with all. You can’t collect checks based on the earnings records of all your exes. A divorced woman will be ineligible for any auxiliary benefits if none of her marriages lasted at least 10 years.

An option available to divorced spouses that isn’t available to married couples is that, at the divorced spouse’s full retirement age, the divorced spouse can choose to receive only the spousal benefit available to a divorced spouse and delay receiving retirement benefits based on his or her own work record until a later date. If the retirement benefits based on his or her own work record are delayed, a higher benefit may be received at a later date, based on the effect of delayed retirement credits.

For married couples, if both spouses are full retirement age, only one spouse can choose to receive spousal benefits now and delay receiving his or her own retirement benefits until a later date.

If you can’t find what you need online, then give your local Social Security office a call to discuss your situation. Regular readers know that I also suggest talking to private firms, such as Social Security Solutions, to consider strategies to maximize your Social Security benefits.

Get more news, money-saving tips and expert advice by signing up for a free Bankrate newsletter.

Ask the adviser

To ask a question of Dr. Don, go to the “Ask the Experts” page and select one of these topics: “Financing a home,” “Saving & Investing,” “Senior Living” or “Money.” Read more Dr. Don columns for additional personal finance advice.

Bankrate’s content, including the guidance of its advice-and-expert columns and this website, is intended only to assist you with financial decisions. The content is broad in scope and does not consider your personal financial situation. Bankrate recommends that you seek the advice of advisers who are fully aware of your individual circumstances before making any final decisions or implementing any financial strategy. Please remember that your use of this website is governed by Bankrate’s Terms of Use.

More On Social Security:

Create a news alert for "retirement"