Today, I answer two related retirement planning questions about divorce and Social Security benefits.

Dear Dr. Don,
I am 64 and my ex-husband died about five years ago. I live in California and he died in New York. I am applying for survivors benefits as a divorced widow, as we were married for 11 years and had two children.

I think I am entitled to survivors benefits. His benefits are considerably higher than mine and since he never helped to support our children, I feel that this is a blessing to finally come my way.

I believe he remarried twice since we divorced and was married at the time of his death but did not have any other children — I do not know the age of his wife. If other wives should also apply, will that affect my right to receive his benefit? The Social Security page on survivors’ benefits does not mention this.

Also, is it possible to make the benefits retroactive? I did not know I could apply for this at age 60 and this information is not offered at the time of application.
— Kathleen Collects

Dear Kathleen,
Your ability to receive survivor’s benefits based on your ex-husband’s work history doesn’t depend on whether he remarried, but on whether you remarried. Here’s what the Social Security Web page, “Qualifying for Divorced Spouse benefits” says about your situation:

A person can receive benefits as a surviving divorced spouse on the Social Security record of a former spouse who died fully insured, if he or she:

  • Is at least age 60, or age 50 and disabled;
  • Was married to the former spouse for at least 10 years; and
  • Is not entitled to a higher Social Security benefit on his or her own record.

If the surviving divorced spouse age 60 or over applying for benefits remarried after age 60, or after age 50 and at the time of remarriage was entitled to disability benefits, the marriage is disregarded. If a person is already entitled to benefits as an aged or disabled surviving divorced spouse and remarries, benefits continue regardless of the person’s age at the time of remarriage.

The benefits paid to a divorced spouse or a surviving divorced spouse will not affect the benefit amount paid to other family members who receive benefits on the same record.

The ability to receive survivor benefits retroactively is limited. From the Social Security Handbook (Section 1513, Retroactive Effect of Application): “For example, full retirement age claims and survivor claims may be paid for up to six months retroactively.”

It would be a good idea to talk to a Social Security representative about your situation and the options available to you. You can call (800) 772-1213 to make an appointment to talk with a Social Security representative. Your ability to choose whether to receive a survivor’s benefit or a benefit based on your work history makes talking to a representative important.

Dear Dr. Don,
I am 80, divorced and have two grown children from that marriage. My ex-husband remarried and died after seven years. Am I entitled to part or all of his Social Security?
— Jacqueline Juncture

Dear Jacqueline,
Just like Kathleen in the previous letter, you are able to draw a survivor’s benefit based on your ex-husband’s work history. The benefits paid to a divorced spouse or a surviving divorced spouse don’t affect the benefit amount paid to other family members who receive benefits on the same worker’s record.

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