A Divorced Woman's Guide to Social Security

By Tom Margenau

May 27, 2020 6 min read

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.

Q: My ex-husband recently died. I am 58. When can I claim divorced widows benefits, and how much can I get?

A: At your full retirement age, you could get 100% of your ex's Social Security. The rate is reduced roughly one-half of 1% for each month benefits are taken before then, down to about 71% at age 60. In rare cases, a disabled widow can get the 71% rate as early as age 50.

Q: I was married to my ex for one day shy of 10 years. Can I get Social Security on his record?

A: Sorry, but no. Rules are rules. And what the law says is that your marriage must have reached its 10th anniversary date to meet the 10-year duration of marriage rule.

Q: I am 62 and thinking of signing up for Social Security. My husband, who I've been married to for 22 years, is 60. But my first husband, to whom I was married for 15 years, is 68. Can I apply for benefits from his record?

A: No. As long as you are married to husband number two, you can't get any Social Security from number one.

Q: I am 62 and still working. Can I file for benefits on my ex-husband's Social Security record?

A: No. The same earnings penalty rules that apply to retirees also apply to spousal benefits. In a nutshell, those rules say that if you are under age 66, $1 must be withheld from any Social Security benefits you are due for every $2 you earn over $18,240.

Q: My husband and I divorced many years ago. I have not remarried. I don't know if he has. In fact, I don't know anything about him. Will Social Security notify me when he dies so that I can file for widows benefits on his record?

A: Probably not. There is simply no way the Social Security Administration can keep track of every person in this country and notify them when they might be eligible for any kind of Social Security benefit. However, what could happen is this: If your ex-husband files for Social Security benefits, and if he mentions you as a former wife on his retirement application (the form asks about all current and prior marriages), the SSA will contact you if it appears you might be due any benefits on his account.

If you have a Social Security question, Tom Margenau has the answer. Contact him at [email protected] To find out more about Tom Margenau and to read past columns and see features from other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

Photo credit: congerdesign at Pixabay

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