Money Matters

Seeking clarity on the rules for Social Security spousal benefits

September 14, 2013 

Q. I am 67, divorced, never remarried, but married for more than 10 years to my former husband, who is deceased but would be 66 now. I am currently working full-time, and plan to wait until 70 to draw my Social Security.

At this time, if I did apply for my Social Security benefit, it would be significantly higher than that of my former husband. I have been told by Social Security representatives that I could draw from my former husband’s Social Security in spite of my being entitled to a higher benefit at this point.

I have read the regulations, and as it reads, it appears that I am not eligible as an ex-spouse due to my being “entitled” to a higher Social Security benefit. But the representatives tell me that I am not interpreting this correctly. I do not want to compromise my own Social Security benefits when I am 70, but I cannot find anything in writing that assures me that I am eligible.

Unfortunately, I have learned the hard way not to take information from a representative without having it in writing. I shouldn’t care, but I doubt his widow is financially well off, and she is far from retirement age.

Do you know if my taking a spousal benefit will affect her future widow benefits?

I would ask the representatives for a written statement that taking spousal benefits now will not affect future benefits based on your own earnings.

What they are telling you is correct, but it never hurts to have something in writing rather than taking their word or mine! If the marriage lasted for 10 or more years, once a divorced spouse reaches full retirement age, he or she can file a restricted application for spousal benefits only, and then switch to benefits based on his or her own earnings record. Your own benefit will increase by 8 percent each year from full retirement age to age 70.

That’s nice of you to be concerned about his widow. Your Social Security benefits will not affect the amount of her widow benefit. Since your former spouse predeceased you, you will be eligible for a benefit larger than a spousal benefit. At your full retirement age, the spousal benefit would be 50 percent of his benefit; the widow benefit amount will be 100 percent your ex-husband’s benefit.

A widow or widower is eligible for survivor benefits at age 60. The survivor benefit will be reduced by 71.5 percent to 99 percent if taken before their full retirement age. If disabled or caring for a child younger than 16, a widow or widower may receive benefits prior to age 60.

The Social Security website, www.socialsecurity.gov/survivorplan/onyourown3.htm, contains a lot of good information and may answer a lot of your questions.

Holly Nicholson is a certified financial planner in Raleigh. She cannot answer every question. Reach her at askholly.com or P.O. Box 97128, Raleigh, NC 27624

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