Rules for receiving ex-spouse benefit can be hard to understand

Dear Readers,

I recently received a question about ex-spouse Social Security benefits from a 60-year-old divorced woman who is now trying to plan ahead for her own retirement. She actually had several good questions about how ex-spouse benefits work that focused on some important points, so I decided to include them all here.

Social Security benefits based on your ex-spouse’s record can be a positive boost to your income. And they apply equally to men and women, so if you think you may be eligible, it’s definitely worth exploring. Here are some key questions and answers to get you started.

 

Who qualifies for ex-spouse Social Security benefits?

Whether you qualify for an ex-spouse benefit depends on your age, the length of your marriage and your current marital status. In a nutshell:

  • You must be at least 62 years old.
  • You must have been married for a minimum of 10 years.
  • If your ex hasn’t yet filed for benefits but is eligible, you must have been divorced for two years.
  • You must be currently unmarried.
  • If you did remarry, that marriage must have ended.
  • The benefit based on your own work record must be less than the spousal benefit from your ex.
  • If you have more than one ex-spouse (with a minimum 10 year marriage), you can collect on either spouse’s record, but not both.

If you meet these qualifications, that’s step one. But it doesn’t answer all the potential questions. Read on.

 

How do I find out what my ex-spouse’s retirement benefit will be?

Other than asking your ex directly, you have no way of knowing how much his or her Social Security benefit will be. The Social Security Administration can’t tell you anything in advance. So if you’re not communicating, you ‘ll have to wait until you file to find out.

The good news is that your ex doesn’t have to be involved for you to collect a spousal benefit. In fact, he or she doesn’t even have to have filed for benefits. As long as your ex is 62, and therefore eligible for Social Security, you’re also potentially eligible for a spousal benefit.

 

How much will I get?

Your own age plays a part in how much that benefit will be. Once you’re at your full retirement age, you’re entitled to 50 percent of your ex’s full primary insurance amount, which is the benefit he or she would get at their FRA. So if your ex’s PIA were estimated to be $1,600 and you were at full retirement age, you’d collect $800/month.

 

What happens if I have earned Social Security benefits on my own work record?

If you are eligible for retirement benefits on your own record and divorced spouse’s benefits, Social Security will pay your retirement benefit first. If the benefit on your ex-spouse’s record is higher, you will get an additional amount on your ex-spouse’s record so that the combination of benefits equals that higher amount.

 

Can I take a spousal benefit and switch to my own benefit later?

With one exception, the option to file for a spousal or ex-spouse benefit only and switch to your own benefit later no longer exists. In general, when you file for any type of spousal benefit, the IRS considers that you are filing for both your own benefit and the spousal benefit at the same time. If the spousal benefit is more, you’ll receive that greater amount.

The exception is for people who were born before January 2, 1954. If your birthday falls before that date and you’re at your full retirement age, you can still choose to restrict your benefit to the ex-spouse benefit only and switch to your own benefit later–letting your own benefit grow. If you’re lucky enough to qualify for the exception, every year you wait to collect on your own work record, you’ll earn delayed retirement credits of 8 percent until age 70. That is a hefty bonus.

 

What if I remarry?

The marriage rules are a double-edged sword of sorts. In general, if you remarry you no longer qualify for ex-spouse benefits unless that new marriage ends by death, divorce or annulment. On the other side, it doesn’t matter whether or not your ex remarries. You’re still eligible for ex-spouse benefits as long as you’re single.

 

Do I still get survivors’ benefits?

Yes — with a couple of caveats. An ex-spouse is entitled to the same survivors’ benefits as a widow or widower as long as the marriage lasted 10 years or more. Marital status can be a factor if you’re under age 60. But if you remarry after age 60, you can collect survivors’ benefits whether you’re married or single. Plus, if you’ve survived more than one spouse, you can choose to collect on the one with the higher benefit — and even switch between them if, for instance, a spouse with a lower benefit dies before a spouse with a higher benefit.

This can seem like a lot of details; if you still have questions, you could look for a financial advisor who specializes in Social Security issues. If you qualify for ex-spouse benefits, by all means take advantage of them.•

Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz, Certified Financial Planner, is president of the Charles Schwab Foundation and author of “The Charles Schwab Guide to Finances After Fifty.” You can email Carrie at askcarrie@schwab.com. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author.

© 2017 Charles Schwab & Co. Inc., Member SIPC

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