Economic value of family caregiving in 2013 © Bigstock

Dear Liz: 

I was a caregiver to my mom, who had Alzheimer’s, and lost my business in the downturn. I had no income, so I applied early for Social Security and got a reduced amount. Although I had been married for 20 years, I didn’t apply for divorced spousal benefits because I didn’t have the signature page for my divorce papers and was so overwhelmed with caregiving. At the time, the Social Security Administration said I would receive about the same either way. Would I now be able to receive any more if I filed on my ex-husband’s work record? He made significantly more than I ever did.

— Joan

Dear Joan,

Your ex may have made more money than you, but that doesn’t mean your own benefit is worth less than a portion of his. At most, spousal benefits equal 50% of the primary earner’s benefit, and the amount is further reduced when you start spousal benefits before your own full retirement age. Full retirement age is currently 66, although it will rise to 67 for those born in 1960 and later.

If you applied for divorced spousal benefits now, the Social Security Administration would look at what you would have received when you first applied, says Jerry Lutz, a former Social Security technical expert. You would be “deemed” to be retroactively applying for both benefits, reduced to reflect the early start.

You can’t reset the clock or get the larger benefits you would have received had you waited until your full retirement age to apply.

But it’s possible that the divorced spousal benefit you were entitled to when you first applied was higher than what you received on your own record, says economist Laurence Kotlikoff, co-author of “Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security.” If that’s the case, you could receive a lump sum equal to the benefits you missed and a larger monthly check, so it’s worth asking.

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