Ask Bob: Can Divorced Spouses Receive Social Security Benefits on an Ex-spouse's Work Record?

Robert Powell, CFP®

Question

I’m 64 and took early retirement due to poor health. I’ve always been self-employed. My wife of 30 years and I divorced several years ago. I understand she remarried shortly thereafter.

Recently she was diagnosed with cancer and is terminally ill. She started drawing disability at the time of the diagnosis. She just turned 59. She was always employed and received a W-2. My question: Am I entitled to draw anything from her benefits?

Answer

Your question about potential Social Security benefits from an ex-spouse touches on two very different provisions of Social Security benefit claiming, according to David Cechanowicz, a senior financial planner with REDW Wealth.

According to Cechanowicz, in order for you to be eligible for a spousal benefit you have to meet each of the following eligibility tests:

  1. Your marriage must have lasted for at least 10 years. This requirement is met.
  2. You must not have remarried. Although your ex-spouse has remarried, your marital status is unknown. If unmarried, this criterion is met.
  3. You must have been divorced for at least two years to be considered independently divorced. This allows you to file for benefits even if your ex-spouse is not claiming. This criterion is also met.
  4. You must be at least 62 years old and this criterion is met.
  5. Your ex-spouse must be eligible to claim benefits at retirement age (62 at the earliest) or, must be eligible for disability benefits which will allow for ex-spousal benefits to be claimed on the life of a younger individual. This test is also met.
  6. Your own retirement benefit that you are currently collecting cannot be greater than 50% of the benefit that your ex-spouse is currently receiving. For example, assume that your retirement benefit is $1,300 per month and your ex-spouse is the recipient of a $1,800 per month disability benefit. In that case, you would not be eligible for any “spousal” benefit on the work record of your ex-spouse.
  7. If your own benefit is not equal to one half of your ex-spouse’s benefit, you do not get two benefit checks. Your own benefit, if less than one half of the ex-spouse benefit can only be “topped up” until you receive 50% of your ex-spouse’s benefit.
  8. Since you are age 64, you will be asking for a benefit prior to your full retirement age. Therefore, if there is a benefit that you are eligible for, it will be reduced because it is being claimed prior to your full retirement age. Individuals that were born in 1955 reach Full Retirement Age at 66 and two months.

“However,” Cechanowicz adds, “you may ultimately be eligible to claim an entirely different benefit. That is the Social Security survivors benefit. Eligibility for this benefit depends on an entirely different set of conditions that must be met.”

Cechanowicz provides the following information, noting that not all of the rules are listed below, only the ones that appear to deal with this reader’s situation:

  1. The first rule is that the ex-spouse must be deceased.
  2. You must have been married for 10 years.
  3. You can be remarried, but only if the marriage took place after age 60.
  4. The benefit amount being claimed as a survivor must exceed the benefits that are being paid to you on your own work record (either retirement or disability).
  5. If you claim the survivor benefit prior to reaching full retirement age, an actuarial reduction will be applied to the benefit check. Ex-spouse survivor benefits can begin to be paid at age 60 (age 50 if you are disabled). Since you are 64 years old any benefit you would currently claim would be reduced. For a deceased ex-spouse, the benefit reduction at age 64 is 9.5%. Using the $1,800 example from above, you would be eligible for a survivor benefit of $1,629 per month (if you claimed in the month of your 64th birthday).
  6. Since your ex-spouse remarried, there may be two survivor benefits payable, first to her current spouse, and second to you. Multiple beneficiaries do not reduce the amounts payable.

Cechanowicz concludes, “If your current benefit is less than half of your ex-spouse’s disability benefit, and you have not remarried, then you would be eligible for a reduced ex-spouse benefit. Since your ex-spouse is terminally ill, you may also become eligible for a survivor’s benefit that will be reduced for any claim prior to your age of 66 and two months.”

Got questions? Get answers!

Got questions about the CARES ACT,  Social Security, Medicare, retirement, investments, or money in general? Want to be considered for a Money Makeover? Email Robert.Powell@TheStreet.com. Kim McSheridan assisted with this report.

Comments (1)
No. 1-1
Marcia.Mantell
Marcia.Mantell

I appreciated the step-wise nature of this article. Whether you can claim on an ex, or not, can be quite complicated. This situation illustrates that in spades, and David spelled out the steps very clearly. Good info!


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