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Dear Penny: Do I need my ex-husband’s permission to get his Social Security?

No, the advice columnist writes. But you’ll want to think through this a little more.
[Getty Images]
[Getty Images] [ Getty Images ]
Published Dec. 14, 2020

Dear Penny,

I got married at 19 and divorced in my early 30s. During my 20s, I didn’t work much because I stayed at home raising three kids, but I’ve worked full time ever since my divorce. I’ve never earned above $54,000 a year, which is what I’m making now.

I’m turning 62 next year and am preparing to retire and take Social Security. My ex-husband (age 64) has a high-paying job and has always outearned me. We are no longer in contact, but I know he’s still working through our kids.

I’m thinking I would probably get more benefits if I took his Social Security. Would I need to contact him and get his permission first?

-H.

Dear H.,

No, you don’t need to contact your ex to claim his Social Security. Even Social Security won’t contact your ex to tell him you’re claiming his Social Security benefits. So please don’t worry that you’ll need to restart communication with your ex to get his permission here.

But I get super nervous whenever anyone starts talking about taking Social Security at 62, no matter whose record they’re claiming on. And I’m also skeptical about whether you’ll actually collect more based on his record rather than your own. More on all that shortly.

First, a quick primer on the rules for exes and Social Security. You can claim based on an ex-spouse’s record if you were married for at least 10 years, you’ve been divorced for two years and you haven’t remarried. You both have to be at least 62, and your ex has to be eligible for benefits based on their work history. It doesn’t matter whether your ex has actually started benefits. They just need to be eligible.

Your ex really shouldn’t care about this one. His benefits won’t be affected — which may come as good news or bad news to you, depending on how the marriage ended. If he’s remarried, his new spouse’s benefits won’t be impacted, either.

Technically, he could call the Social Security Administration and find out whether you (or any other ex-spouse) are collecting benefits based on his record. Surely his time is better spent working at that high-paying job than it is on the phone with Social Security. Should he choose to embark on a fact-finding mission, they wouldn’t tell him your address or how much you’re actually receiving.

But the most you can collect based on an ex-spouse’s work record is 50 percent of their full retirement benefit, i.e., what they’ll qualify for at full retirement age. Wait! There’s more bad news. You only get the entire 50 percent if you wait until your full retirement age. If you were born in 1959, that’s 66 years and 10 months.

By claiming as soon as you’re eligible, you’ll reduce your benefit even more. For each year you take your benefits before your full retirement age, you reduce your benefit by 6.66 percent, no matter whose record you claim on. In your case, you’d only be collecting about 35 percent of his benefit.

Keep in mind that the rules for Social Security and exes exist to protect people who don’t have much work history of their own. I’m doubtful that you can collect more using his benefit, given that you have at least 30 years of work history. Fortunately, we don’t need to spend all day speculating about whose record will give you a bigger benefit.

You can call Social Security and ask them what you’ll qualify for as a divorced spouse. You’ll have to provide your marriage and your divorce decree. It will be helpful if you still have your ex’s Social Security number. If you don’t, you may need to provide other identifying information for Social Security to locate his record. You’ll get whichever benefit is higher.

The bigger question is whether you can afford to retire and take Social Security at 62. For people who are in decent health, the best solution is usually to hold out as long as possible unless you have serious retirement savings. Waiting to collect the maximum benefit at age 70 is unrealistic for many seniors. But even holding out for a couple of years past 62 can make retirement more affordable.

Whenever you decide to claim, keep in mind that you’ll only have a 12-month window to reverse your decision. In that case, you’d have to suspend your benefit and pay back everything you received. If that’s not feasible, you have to accept the lower benefit for life.

Marriages don’t always last. But your Social Security decisions are more or less permanent. Tread very carefully, no matter whose record you claim on.

Robin Hartill is a certified financial planner and a senior editor at The Penny Hoarder. Send your tricky money questions to AskPenny@thepennyhoarder.com.