Don’t settle for Social Security

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If you’re divorced for at least two years from someone to whom you were married 10 years or more and you aren’t currently remarried, you are entitled to Social Security benefits based on your former spouse’s record, even if that person has remarried.

Both current and former spouses have rights to full spousal benefits, as well as full survivors benefits. In other words, when your ex-spouse dies, you’ll be entitled to his or her full benefit if it is greater than yours.

Many people, including some divorce attorneys, don’t understand these rules, says Cindy Hounsell, president of the nonprofit Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement, or WISER. Some divorce attorneys actively include Social Security benefits in the property settlement, as if dividing that asset were necessary. “They say, ‘You get less because we’re letting you have part of your spouse’s Social Security benefits.’ That’s wrong,” Hounsell says.

Here’s an example of a good way to use these rules to maximize your benefits. At 66 — full retirement age for people born between 1943 and 1954  — a divorced spouse is eligible to file for half her (or his) former spouse’s Social Security benefit as long as that spouse is age 62 and one month. You can take half your ex-spouse’s benefit and let your own benefit grow until you are 70. At that point, it will have increased 32 percent, plus whatever the cost of living, or COLA, adjustments are. This year’s COLA was 1.7 percent.

James Mahaney, a vice president of Strategic Initiatives for Prudential Financial who wrote a white paper on Social Security retirement planning strategies like these, offers these key points for divorced spouses.

  • As a divorced spouse who was married for at least 10 years, you have the same rights as a married spouse to a spousal benefit, as long as you are not remarried.
  • Unlike a married spouse, you are entitled to a spousal benefit as soon as your former spouse reaches eligibility age, whether your former spouse has filed for benefits or not. Your former spouse only needs to have turned age 62 for a full month.
  • Waiting until full retirement age gives you lots more flexibility. If you file for benefits prior to your full retirement age, you can’t claim spousal benefits without losing the right to let your own benefits grow in value. You can’t switch to your own benefits later and the spousal benefit won’t increase more than the cost of living.
  • You may claim a survivors benefit based on your former spouse’s benefit if it is higher than your own at the time your former spouse dies. The longer your former spouse delays claiming Social Security, the higher the survivors benefit you’ll receive.