Personal Finance

Money Matters: Ex-spouses and their rights to Social Security benefits

Q. I read your column in the Sunday N&O. Good information! Wondered if you could do a column on Social Security benefits? It is really confusing. This is the second marriage for my husband and I. We both have good jobs and we’ll both receive the maximum Social Security benefits based on our earnings. He is 68 and I am 63 and we have been married for 2 years. We want to work until we are 70 and don’t plan to take our Social Security until we retire. I have heard conflicting information about our ex’s having rights to our SSN benefits especially if one of us dies. Or that they can take benefits based on our Social Security Number when we start taking benefits. Does this impact our benefits or our survivor benefits? What if they remarry? My husband’s ex says she’ll be better off when he’s dead – no love loss there!

A. First of all, know that you and your husband’s Social Security benefits will not be impacted by whatever benefits your ex’s are entitled to based on your earnings. This applies to benefits while you are both living and for survivor benefits. It may be easier to answer your question by telling you what the ex’s can and can’t do and how.

If an ex remarries their “divorced spouse’s” benefits may end. If that remarriage ends (death, divorce or annulment) they may be able to have benefits paid again based on their former spouse’s record.

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

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

Privacy rules prohibit Social Security from giving your ex your earnings record but the Social Security office can tell them what benefits they may be entitled to after it is established that they are your ex-spouse. Visit your local office or call 1-800-772-1213 for more information.

On a slightly different topic, once you reach full retirement age (FRA) consider applying for a restricted spousal benefit based on your husband’s earnings. Then at your age 70 switch to your own benefit. The rules and your personal situation could change so consult with a knowledgeable advisor as you get closer to FRA.