Ex-spouses and Social Security

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I told my husband last night that I was going to write about ex-spouses being able to claim Social Security benefits on their ex’s work record and he got pale.

But here’s some retirement planning good news. It wouldn’t cost my husband any money whatsoever if his ex-wife filed for Social Security based on his benefits. No retirement benefits are changed, reduced or penalized by an ex-spouse’s claim.

The Social Security Administration offers a good explanation of the process. But here are the rules in a nutshell:

  • Your marriage must have lasted at least 10 years.
  • You must be 62 or older.
  • The benefit you are entitled to based on your own work record must be less than the benefit you’d be entitled to based on your ex-spouse’s record — that’s 50 percent of what your ex-spouse gets or could get.
  • You can collect on your ex-spouse’s record even if he or she hasn’t applied for benefits, however, you must have been divorced for at least two years.
  • If your ex-spouse is deceased, you’re entitled to an amount equal to his full benefit (if it is greater than your own) and you can claim it at age 60, or age 50 if you are disabled.
  • If you are claiming on your own record and your ex-spouse dies and the benefit that you would be receiving as a survivor is higher than what you are getting on your own, you can switch.
  • If you remarry before age 60, you lose the right to claim on an ex-spouse’s record — at least until the subsequent marriage(s) end in death or divorce. If that happens, you can select the best benefit from among your ex-spouses.
  • If you remarry after age 60, or you are a disabled widow or a disabled surviving former spouse who remarries after age 50, you are eligible to receive benefits based your former or your current spouse’s record, whichever gets you the most money.
  • When both claimants are high earners, it might make sense to strategize. If you wait until full retirement age — 66 — before claiming Social Security, you can limit your claim to your ex-spouse’s record. Then you take that 50 percent amount for four years while your own Social Security account grows 32 percent (8 percent per year). At age 70, you claim that higher benefit based on your own account — a significant increase.
  • To claim your ex’s benefits, you’ll need a certified copy of your divorce decree. If you can’t find it, you can get it from the state where you were divorced. It helps to also have that person’s Social Security number. If you don’t have it, supply the names of his or her parents.