Money Matters

Filing for divorce can raise Social Security questions

November 3, 2012 

Q. My divorce was finalized just a few weeks before we would have been married for 10 years. My question is about collecting Social Security from my ex-husband’s Social Security account. It is my understanding that we had to be married for 10 years. Is this waived since we were married almost 10 years? If so, how do I find out what benefits he has? What happens if he remarries? What happens if I remarry?

A. The government views you as still married until the final divorce decree is issued. You raise a good question and one that can be a lesson to others (including attorneys and other advisers to those divorcing) as one more issue to consider when filing for divorce. According to the Social Security website, as long as a marriage lasts for 10 years before the divorce becomes final, a divorced spouse may be entitled to benefits based on the ex-spouse’s account. I spoke by phone with two Social Security customer service representatives, and they both said that the 10 year requirement is exactly that but then suggested you apply anyway and make sure you will be denied. So, that’s what I’d suggest. Be truthful with all of the facts surrounding your application and see what happens.

Eligibility requirements

Other factors on whether you can collect on an ex-spouse’s Social Security account and additional information on this topic are discussed below.

To collect on an ex-spouse’s account, you must be unmarried and at least 62. As long as you have been divorced for more than two years you can collect on an ex-spouse’s account even if they are still working provided they have reached age 62 and are fully insured. You do not have to wait two years if your ex-spouse is entitled to and receiving Social Security. You can file an application for divorced spouse’s benefits and receive up to one-half of their benefit amount unless your own primary amount exceeds this amount. Example: You meet all of the above requirements, your ex is receiving monthly Social Security benefits of $1,600 and based on your own work record you are entitled to a monthly benefit of $600. When you file for divorced spouse’s benefits, you will be able to collect an additional $200 from the benefit record of your ex for a total of one-half of the ex’s benefit. If you don’t have your own benefits you would receive $800 from your ex’s earnings record. If you were entitled to at least $800 on your own earnings record you will not be entitled to any benefit based on your ex’s record.

Effects of remarriage

The remarriage of an ex-spouse will not affect entitlement to their Social Security benefits. The amount an ex-spouse will receive will have no effect on the benefit amount for his or her new spouse. Your remarriage (to someone other than your ex) will end your divorced spouse’s benefits. If you remarry and that marriage ends (death, divorce or annulment) you may be able to have benefits paid again based on your former spouse’s record.

If your ex dies, the rules change slightly. Widow(er)’s and surviving divorced spouse benefits may begin at age 60. Also, if you are a divorced widow(er) you may continue to collect benefits if you remarry at age 60 or later or at age 50 and after you become disabled.

Privacy rules prohibit Social Security from giving you an ex’s earnings record, but the Social Security office can tell you what benefits you may be entitled to after you establish that you are the ex-spouse. Visit your local office or call 1-800-772-1213 for more information.

Holly Nicholson is a certified financial planner in Raleigh. She cannot answer every question. Reach her at askholly.com or P.O. Box 99466, Raleigh, NC 27624

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