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Bad Marriage? Stay for 10 Years to Get an Ex-Spouse Social Security Check

Social Security provides benefits for ex-spouses, a guarantee of retirement income after a marriage breaks up. This can be a vital source of income, often overlooked by many people who married young, divorced, and haven’t given a thought in years to the ex-husband or the ex-wife.

The babyboom generation, those Americans born in the years 1946 through 1964, have a much higher divorce rate than their parents, and the spousal benefit for ex-wives and ex-husbands is an important, but sometimes overlooked source of income in retirement.
To be eligible, you must have been married for at least 10 years, you need to be at least 62 years old to collect the spousal benefit, and you need to be single. Also, you must have been divorced for at least two years.
The ex-spouse has flexibility in collecting benefits that can help boost the income. Let’s use Susan as an example. Most of the ex-spouses who can benefit from the provision are women nearing retirement, because they come from a generation likely to have fewer years in the workforce, which means less savings, less generous pensions, and smaller Social Security benefits from their own work record.
Susan’s ex-husband is John. For her to get spousal benefits, John must be at least 62 years old, the first age at which you can get benefits. John doesn’t have to be retired; he simply has to have reached the age of eligibility at 62
The best advice to Susan is to wait until she reaches age 66, when she is entitled to a full spousal benefit. If she files now, she gets a permanently reduced benefit.
Here is Susan’s strategy. She waits till age 66, her age of full retirement. And she files for the spousal benefit, which is 50% of what John is entitled to receive. Let’s say John is eligible to get $1,600 a month at age 66. That means Susan’s spousal benefit would be $800. She compares the $800 with her benefit under HER OWN work record. Let’s assume it would be $700. She gets the bigger of the two, and begins collecting $800 a month at age 66. It doesn’t matter if John himself is retired. Since he is 66, Social Security will calculate what he is entitled to, and guarantee a 50% amount for Susan.
Remember, there is a bonus of 8% a year between ages 66 and 70. Susan hasn’t yet filed for her own personal benefit, and waits until age 70. Her benefit at 66 would have been $700 a month; at age 70, it will be 32% more, or $924. This is more than the $800 she has been getting as the spousal benefit. So, the month before her 70th birthday she goes to the Social Security office, and files to get her own work benefit. Now she begins collecting $924 a month.
What happens if John dies before Susan? She becomes eligible for a survivor’s benefit which is equal to what he had been receiving. Social Security also moves you to the higher income situation.
Susan’s $924 a month is less than John’s benefit of $1,600 a month. When he dies, Susan is switched to a survivor benefit and begins receiving $1,600 a month
All this, the spousal and survivor benefits, were dependent on Susan being single. If she had remarried, she would have paid a high price in lost income.
Suppose Susan had a rocky marital history, perhaps with three husbands, each in unions that endured at least 10 years. Social Security rules say she is always entitled to the highest benefit. If she is getting a spousal benefit from one ex-husband, and another ex-husband with a better earning history dies, she steps up to the higher survival benefit. She can’t get benefits from more than one ex-spouse at a time. Social Security will calculate the confusions and give her the correct amounts.

All this is private. Social Security won’t tell the ex-husband or husbands that Susan is collecting benefits linked to their work records. But Susan needs to be alert, and keep Social Security informed about who she was married to for 10 years or more.
For your questions, call Social Security at 1-800-772-1213.

Written by Bob Rosenblatt

Bob Rosenblatt is a researcher, writer and journalist who helps people looking for up-to-date answers and information on the perplexing issues at the intersection of finances and aging. Bob publishes a weekly report — please take a moment to subscribe in the upper right hand corner of this page.

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