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Social Security and You: Social Security for Divorced Women

Tom Margenau on

My wife and I and a group of our neighbors were chatting the other day, and it dawned on us that there are eight houses in a row on our block in which each of the couples has been married for more than 50 years! Well, not quite. My wife and I are the "newlyweds" on the street. We've only been married 48 years. But the other seven couples have all reached the half-century mark. That's more than 400 years of wedded bliss on our block alone. (OK, let's be honest. It was mostly bliss. But there no doubt was a little bit of grief and sadness, or whatever is the opposite of bliss, in those 400-plus years.)

Anyway, it's still a remarkable achievement. I think you'd be hard-pressed to find another block with that many adjacent homes of marital harmony. (Interestingly, the major crossing street to our neighborhood is called "Harmony Road!")

Having pointed that out, I know we are not the norm because we've all heard the statistic: at least half of all marriages in this country end up in divorce. So, I thought I'd use today's column to address the issues faced by divorced couples -- primarily divorced women.

Let me start out with this point: With just a couple 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 would be her own Social Security retirement benefits. And she would be due those benefits whether she is single, married or divorced. Her marital status means nothing when it comes to her own benefits.

But let's go over the rules that apply specifically to divorced women. The law says if she was married to a guy for at least 10 years, she is potentially due benefits on his Social Security account. If she has several ex-husbands, she doesn't get benefits from all of them. She will only get spousal benefits on the record of the guy with the highest benefit rate.

 

And just as with a married woman, a divorced woman will always be paid her own Social Security benefit first. Only after she is getting whatever she is due on her own account will they look to her ex-husband's record to see if she 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 her own benefit exceeds any of these smaller-percentage benefits she might be due as a divorced spouse. At least while her ex is alive, that is. 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. However, a divorced woman has a bit of an advantage when it comes to that rule. The law says a divorcee 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 a woman has worked any decent amount of time, it's a pretty good bet that her own Social Security benefit will exceed anything she might be due on a living ex-husband's record. But if he dies, then things change. If she is over her full retirement age when that happens, her own benefit can be supplemented up to 100% of the ex's full benefit rate.

If the ex dies when she is under FRA, she could employ the same "widow's option" that would be available for a currently married woman. And that option let's her start benefits on one record and later switch to higher benefits on the other record. For example, assuming she is not working, a woman could take divorced widow's benefits as early as age 60. She'd get about 71% of her ex's full benefit rate. Then she could switch to 100% of her own Social Security benefit at FRA. Or even wait until 70 and switch to about 130% of her own full retirement rate.

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