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Social Security and You: A Divorced Woman's Guide to Social Security

Tom Margenau on

Q: You always seem to write about married women. But there are a lot of us divorced women out here. We need to know about Social Security, too. So, what can you tell us?

A: I can tell you several things. One: I've answered many questions from divorced women in this column. Maybe you just didn't see them. And two: With just a couple of exceptions, a divorced woman is due the same kind of Social Security benefits as a married woman.

So, what kind of benefits are we talking about? Well, first of all, there are your own Social Security retirement benefits. And you are due those benefits whether you are single, married or divorced. Your marital status means nothing when it comes to your own benefits.

But I've got a hunch you are more interested in any benefits you might be due from an ex-husband. Let's go over those rules.

The law says if you were married to a guy for at least 10 years, you are potentially due benefits on his Social Security account. If you have several ex-husbands, you don't get benefits from all of them. You will only get spousal benefits on the record of the guy with the highest benefit rate.

And just as with a married woman, you will always be paid your own Social Security benefit first. Only after you are getting whatever you are due on your own account will they look to your ex-husband's record to see if you can get any additional spousal benefits from him. And because the spousal rate is between about 33% and 50%, there is usually a pretty good chance that your own benefit exceeds any of these smaller percentage benefits you might be due as a divorced spouse -- at least while your ex is still alive. Once he dies, it's a whole different story. More about that in a minute.

 

But first, I need to point out one important distinction between benefits paid to a divorced woman versus a married woman. A married woman cannot get any benefits on her husband's account until he has signed up for Social Security himself. But a divorced woman has a bit of an advantage when it comes to that rule; she can get benefits from her ex even if he isn't getting anything himself. He has to be old enough to be eligible for benefits, which essentially means he has to be at least 62 years old. But again, he doesn't have to be on Social Security's books as a current beneficiary.

As I alluded to earlier, if you've worked any decent amount of time, it's a pretty good bet that your own Social Security benefit will exceed anything you might be due on a living ex-husband's record. But if he dies, things change. If you are over 66 years old when that happens, your own benefit can be supplemented up to 100% of the ex's full benefit rate.

If your ex dies when you are under age 66, you could employ the same "widows option" that would be available to a married woman. And that option lets you start benefits on one record and later switch to higher benefits on the other record. For example, assuming you are not working, you could take divorced widows benefits as early as age 60. You'd get about 71% of your ex's full benefit rate. Then you could switch to 100% of your own Social Security benefit at age 66. Or you could wait until 70 and switch to 132% of your own full retirement rate.

To further clarify the rules, I will answer a couple of questions from some divorced women.

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