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Dear Liz,
My ex is receiving disability benefits at age 58. He was self-employed most of his working career. Could I still receive spousal Social Security benefits? Neither of us has remarried. I am still employed part time but hope to retire at age 65.
— Judy

Dear Judy,
The short answer is yes, you can apply for a spousal benefit if your marriage lasted at least 10 years and you are currently 62 or older.

If your ex weren’t disabled, he would have to be at least 62 before you could apply for a spousal benefit, says economist Laurence Kotlikoff, who runs MaximizeMySocialSecurity.com. Since he’s already receiving disability benefits, that requirement is waived.

Also, if you were still married to each other, you couldn’t apply for spousal benefits until he applied for his own Social Security benefits. That requirement is also waived for divorced spouses to prevent a vengeful ex from deliberately withholding spousal benefits by failing to apply.

His marital status doesn’t affect your ability to claim spousal benefits, but yours does. Should you remarry, you would lose your access to benefits based on his work record.

Just because you can claim benefits doesn’t mean you should, however. If you start spousal benefits before your own full retirement age, you’re robbed of the option to switch to your own benefit later, even if it would be bigger.

“If she files for her spousal benefit before full retirement age, she will be deemed to be also filing for her own retirement benefit. She’ll then be given what is very close to the larger of the two benefits,” Kotlikoff says. “If, as is generally the case, her retirement benefit is largest, she’ll receive just this benefit, which will, of course, be reduced due to her taking it early. So her spousal benefit will be wiped out and she’ll be forced to receive a permanently lower retirement benefit.”

Often, a better strategy is to wait until full retirement age (which is currently 66), file a restricted application so you can take spousal benefits only for a few years and then switch to your own benefit when it maxes out at age 70.

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