First rule: There must be at least a decade between ‘I do’ and ‘I don’t.’
Social Security claiming rules are complicated. So is divorce. And when you combine the two — Social Security claiming rules for divorced spouses — the results could make your head spin.
If you are at least 62, unmarried, and divorced from someone who’s entitled to Social Security retirement or disability benefits, you may be eligible to receive benefits based on his or her record. Most importantly, you must have been married to your ex-spouse for 10 years or more. In other words, there must be at least a decade between your saying “I do” and “I don’t.”
It doesn’t matter if your ex has remarried. As long as you’re currently single, you may be able to collect benefits as an ex-spouse, and it won’t reduce the benefits that your ex or your ex’s new spouse collects.
If you remarry, you can’t collect benefits on your former spouse’s record unless your later marriage ends by annulment, divorce or death. The rules for claiming survivor benefits after the death of an ex-spouse are different. More on that later.
If you’re entitled to benefits on your own earnings record and as an ex-spouse, you can collect benefits on your ex’s earning record only if they’re larger than your own retirement benefit. People who were born on or before Jan. 1, 1954, may have additional claiming options.
One financial advisor from New Orleans had lots of questions about Social Security benefits for her divorced client, who was married for 14 years and has been divorced for 11 years. The client is 55 and her ex-husband is 60.
HER EX’S EARNING RECORD
The advisor asked how soon her client could collect Social Security benefits on her ex’s earning record and how much they would be worth. Did she have to wait for her ex-husband to retire to claim benefits on his earnings record? And what happens if he died first?
Divorced individuals may be able to claim benefits as an ex-spouse — even if their former mate has not filed for Social Security — as long as the couple had been married for at least 10 years and divorced for at least two years, and both ex-spouses are at least 62 years old.
So this advisor’s client would have to wait at least seven years, until she turns 62 before she could claim Social Security benefits. At that point, her ex-husband would have reached his full retirement age of 67. It doesn’t matter if he files for his Social Security.
If she has earned her own retirement benefit and she’s also eligible to claim on her ex’s earnings record, she would receive the higher of the two benefit amounts, not both. But the amount she would receive each month would be determined by her age when she first claimed, not his age.
For example, if she filed for benefits at the earliest age of 62, she would be paid the higher of 70% of her own retirement benefits or 32.5% of her ex-husband’s full retirement age benefit amount. If she waited until her full retirement age of 67, she would receive the higher of 100% of her own retirement benefits or 50% of his full retirement age benefit amount.
If the client delayed claiming benefits beyond her full retirement age, her retirement benefits would grow by 8% per year up to age 70. But her spousal benefits would not. They are worth the maximum amount if claimed at her full retirement age. Spousal benefits do not earn delayed retirement credits.
What happens if her ex-husband dies first? The client would be eligible for survivor benefits on her ex-husband’s earnings record. Survivor benefits are worth 100% of what the deceased worker was collecting on entitled to collect at time of death — including any delayed retirement credits.
If her ex-husband claimed his benefits before his full retirement age, she would receive a reduced benefit, but possibly more than he received when he was alive. A special widow’s minimum benefit rule says that a survivor who’s at least full retirement age at the time of claim would receive the higher of what the deceased worker was claiming or 82.5% of the deceased worker’s full retirement age amount. So if the ex-husband claimed his benefits at 62, he would receive 70% of his full retirement age amount. If he died and his ex-wife was at least full retirement age at the time, she would receive 82.5% of his benefit.
Social Security claiming rules for divorced spouses have many exceptions. Here’s another one. Although remarriage nullifies an ex-spouse’s ability to claim spousal benefits on a living ex, an ex-spouse who remarries at age 60 or later is still able to claim survivor benefits, even if she or he is married to someone else at the time.
And as a reminder, spousal benefits while your ex is alive are worth up to 50% of his or her full retirement age benefits. Survivor benefits after your ex dies are worth 100%. That means your ex is worth twice as much dead as alive!
(Questions about new Social Security rules? Find the answers in Mary Beth Franklin’s 2023 ebook at MaximizingSocialSecurityBenefits.com.)