Dear Savvy Senior: Am I entitled to my former husband’s Social Security benefits? I was married for 12 unpleasant years and would like to know what I may be eligible for. — Ex-spouse
Dear Ex-spouse: You’ll be happy to know that for the most part, Social Security provides divorced spouses benefits just like they do spouses, if you meet the government’s requirements.
Here’s how it works.
A divorced spouse can collect a Social Security retirement benefit on the work record of an ex-husband or ex-wife if the divorced spouse is at least age 62, was married for at least 10 years, is unmarried now, and isn’t eligible for a higher benefit based on his or her own work record.
To collect, however, your former spouse must also be at least 62 and eligible for Social Security benefits, and you must have been divorced for at least two years. But, he doesn’t have to be receiving them for you to collect divorced spouse’s benefits.
Even if your ex is remarried, it won’t affect your right to divorcee benefits, nor will it affect your ex’s retirement benefits or his current spouse’s benefits.
A divorced spouse can receive up to 50 percent of an ex’s full Social Security benefit, or less if the benefits are taken before full retirement age, which is 66 if you were born between 1943 and 1954. To find out your full retirement age and see how much your benefits will be reduced by taking them early see ssa.gov/retire2/agereduction.htm.
Understand, though, that if you qualify for benefits based on your own work history, you’ll receive the larger of the two benefits. You cannot receive benefits on both your own record and your ex’s work record too.
To find out your retirement benefits based on your own earnings history, see your Social Security statement at ssa.gov/myaccount. And to get an estimate of your divorced spouse benefit, call Social Security at 800-772-1213. You’ll need your ex’s Social Security number to get it.
Since three-quarters of U.S. divorcees remarry, it’s also important to understand that remarrying makes you ineligible for divorced spouse’s benefits unless the later marriage ends. And, for those who have been married and divorced twice, with both marriages lasting more than 10 years, you can collect using the ex-spouse with the larger Social Security benefit.
If your ex-spouse dies, and you were married for 10 or more years, you become eligible for divorced “survivor benefits,” which is worth up to 100 percent of what your ex-spouse was due.
Survivor’s benefits are available to divorced spouses as early as age 60 (50 if you’re disabled). But, if you remarry before 60 you become ineligible unless the marriage ends. Remarrying after age 60 won’t affect your eligibility.
Also note that if you are receiving divorced spouses benefits when your ex-spouse dies, you will automatically be switched over to the higher-paying survivor benefit.
Being divorced also offers some switching strategies that can help boost your benefits. For working divorced spouses, there’s an option that lets you file a “restricted” application with Social Security (at full retirement age) to collect a divorced spousal benefit, which is half of what your ex gets. Then, once you reach 70, you stop receiving the ex-spousal benefit and switch to your own benefit, which will be 32 percent higher than it would have been at your full retirement age.
Divorced widows (and widowers) have more options. If, for example, you are collecting Social Security retirement benefits on your own record, and your ex-spouse dies, you can switch to survivor’s benefits if the payment is larger. Or, if you’re collecting survivor’s benefits, you can switch to your own retirement benefits — between 62 and 70 — if it offers a larger payment.
Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit savvysenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of “The Savvy Senior” book.