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    Social Security and Divorce: Can You Collect Benefits on Your Ex's Earnings Record?

    September 10, 2014

    Dear Carrie,

    I'm divorced and have heard that I might be entitled to a Social Security benefit from my ex. Is that right? 

    —A Reader

    Dear Reader,

    Yes, this is probably one of the least-known Social Security benefits, but what you heard is correct. Even though you're divorced, it's still possible to collect Social Security benefits on your ex-spouse's work record. The basic qualifications are pretty straightforward, but read on for a few permutations.

    The basic qualifications

    The first requirement is that your marriage must have lasted for at least 10 years. Interestingly, it doesn't matter if your ex has since remarried—you're still in the picture benefits-wise.  

    Remarriage is an issue for you, however. In order to collect a divorced-spouse benefit, you must currently be single. If you did remarry, that marriage must have ended as well (and you could then choose to collect on either spouse, whichever benefit is higher—but you can't collect on both).

    Third, you must be at least 62 years old. And finally, the benefit you would receive based on your own work record must be less that the benefit you would receive based on your ex's record.  

    It's also interesting to note that the amount that you collect on your ex-spouse's earnings record won't have any effect on what your ex or his or her current spouse can collect.

    That may all sound simple enough. But there's still more to think about.

    Timing considerations

    If you meet the basic qualifications, it can make sense to file based on your ex's record. Even if he or she hasn't yet applied for Social Security but is eligible for it, you can still take benefits as long as you've been divorced for at least two years. 

    However, in terms of determining the best time for you to take this benefit, there are a couple of things to consider. A spousal benefit—whether you're married or divorced—is at most 50% of the spouse's benefit. 

    Realize, though, that if you decide to take it before you reach your full retirement age (FRA), which is 66 for those born between 1943 and 1954, your 50% benefit will be permanently reduced even more—between 7 and 8% for each year leading up to your FRA. Depending on your current financial situation, it might make more economic sense to wait. 

    There's yet another reason to consider waiting. At your FRA, if you're eligible for benefits on your own record, as well as that of your ex, you can choose to initially take only the divorced-spouse benefit and delay taking your own benefit until a later date. 

    Because benefits go up by about 8% a year between the ages of 66 and 70, waiting to collect your own benefit could mean a significantly higher payout down the road. Just for the record, the spousal benefit doesn't go up after you reach your FRA, so there's no advantage to waiting beyond that date.

    The difference in survivor benefits

    The rules change a bit if your ex-spouse passes away. If you're 60 years old and you were married for 10 years or longer, you're entitled to 100% of your deceased ex-spouse's Social Security payout, the same as a widow or widower. And, once again, the fact that you collect benefits won't impact what anyone else can collect. 

    The rules regarding marital status are different in this case, as well. You can be married and still collect survivor benefits as long as you didn't remarry until age 60 (for example, you could be married to one person and still collect benefits from another)!

    An exception to the length-of-marriage rule

    There's one more exception to the rules governing survivor benefits. If you're caring for a child who is under age 16 (or disabled) and who is getting benefits on the record of your former spouse, you don't have to meet the length-of-marriage rule as long as the child is your ex-spouse's natural or legally adopted child. 

    However, in this situation, the benefit you receive will have an impact on the amount of benefits others might collect. If this is your situation, it's best to contact the Social Security Administration.

    What's right for you

    If you're divorced and juggling expenses, being able to boost your income with a spousal benefit can be a real plus. But no matter what your marital status, it pays to do some serious thinking about the best time for you to file. Your health, family longevity, and overall retirement plan are all factors to consider. If you can wait a few years to collect a larger benefit, that's probably the smartest choice for the long term. 

    But before you decide, take some time to consider all of your options and do some calculations. Social Security is quite complicated, so don't hesitate to seek some personal advice from a trusted advisor before you file. 

    Looking for answers to your retirement questions? Check out Carrie’s new book, The Charles Schwab Guide to Finances After Fifty: Answers to Your Most Important Money Questions (Crown Business, 2014), available in bookstores nationwide. Read more at http://schwab.com/book.

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