Dear Dr. Don,
I turn 62 years old in January 2011. I divorced my ex 11 years ago after being married to him for 29 years. During our marriage, I was basically a stay-at-home mom.

I only have 15 years of employment history. I’m working 32 hours per week now. Can I take part of his retirement when I turn 62 years old? He plans to get Social Security when he turns 62 years old in February 2011. I’ll continue working part time; then, when I turn 66 years old, can I change to my Social Security benefits, which would be higher than they are now?
— Lynda Labyrinth

Dear Lynda,
The Social Security Handbook lays out the ground rules in Section 311, “When are you entitled to divorced spouse’s insurance benefits?

You are entitled to a divorced spouse’s insurance benefits on the worker’s Social Security record if:

  1. The worker is entitled to retirement or disability insurance benefits;
  2. You have filed an application for divorced spouse’s benefits;
  3. You are not entitled to a retirement or disability insurance benefit based on a primary insurance amount which equals or exceeds one-half the worker’s primary insurance amount;
  4. You are age 62 or over;
  5. You are not married; and
  6. You were married to the worker for at least 10 years before the date the divorce became final.

Note: You are not entitled before age 62 even if you have an entitled child in care.

The divorced spouse of a worker who is not entitled to retirement or disability insurance benefits, but has reached age 62 and is fully insured, can become independently entitled to benefits on the worker’s earnings record. To do so, however, the divorced spouse must meet the requirements in (B)-(F) above and have been divorced from the worker for not less than two continuous years.

Because you’re a month older than he is, you’d have to wait for him to catch up before you could apply for benefits on his work record. The Bankrate feature “When should you apply for Social Security?” has more on this decision.

Another consideration is “How Work Affects Your Benefits.” According to the publication: “You can get Social Security retirement or survivors benefits and work at the same time. But, if you are younger than full retirement age and earn more than certain amounts, your benefits will be reduced. It is important to note, though, that these benefit reductions are not truly lost. Your benefit will be increased at your full retirement age to account for benefits withheld due to earlier earnings. (Spouses and survivors who receive benefits because they have minor or disabled children in their care do not receive increased benefits at full retirement age if benefits were withheld because of work.)”

When you apply for Social Security before reaching full retirement age, the application is automatically deemed to be for your ex-spousal benefits and your own benefits. You aren’t postponing claiming benefits on your record. That’s important, because it will impact your benefits throughout retirement.

If you are eligible for retirement benefits on your own record, Social Security will pay that amount first. If the benefit base on your ex-spouse’s record is a higher amount, you get a combination of benefits that equals the higher amount, less any reduction for age.

The Social Security’s Retirement Planner provides a nice overview of the topic in its “If you are divorced” section. You plan on working until full retirement age, so determine how waiting to file changes your benefits.

Thanks to Edward Lafferty, public affairs specialist at the Social Security Administration, for helping me with this reply.

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