I was married 22 years. The marriage ended in 2002. When my ex-wife retires, will I be able to collect half of her Social Security? If so, how do I go about that? I am 61; she is 62 now.
Also, would she be able to come after half of my Social Security? How can I prevent the latter? (I earned less than she did.)
If your ex-wife earned more than you, she’d almost certainly get more money by taking her own Social Security. But even if you made more money, there’s no reason to worry that your ex could “come after” your Social Security. Her benefit has zero impact on your benefit, and vice-versa.
There seems to be a misconception at the heart of your question — which is the idea that when you claim your ex’s Social Security, you’re somehow taking money from them. That’s simply not true.
Social Security doesn’t have a pot of money set aside for you. Instead, you pay into the Social Security trust through payroll taxes. When you become eligible to start collecting, your benefits are calculated based on how much you paid in. Alternatively, if you’re married or divorced, you may qualify for spousal benefits. In that case, Social Security bases your benefit on your current or former spouse’s earnings instead of your own.
The important point is this: Social Security wouldn’t take money out of your ex’s check and send it to you. Nor would they send half of your check to your ex. They’ll simply use the former spouse’s work record if it results in more money for the person who’s applying. Social Security will give you whichever benefit is bigger, but not both.
There’s nothing anyone can do to prevent their ex from claiming their Social Security. Even though some divorce decrees specify that one spouse will relinquish their rights to collect the other spouse’s benefits, the Social Security Administration says these provisions “are worthless and are never enforced.”
Now to answer your question: It sounds like you’d qualify for your ex-wife’s benefits, as long as you’re not currently married. Your marriage lasted for 10 years and you’ve been divorced for more than two years, as Social Security requires.
But don’t be surprised if you qualify for more Social Security on your own. The maximum benefit you can get through spousal benefits, whether you’re a current or former spouse, is 50% of their primary insurance amount. That’s the benefit you’re eligible for at full retirement age, which is 67 for anyone born in 1960 or later. People who work for most of their adult lives often qualify for more on their own, even if they were married to someone who earned more.
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Your benefit would be even less than half if you claim Social Security early. If you started collecting at 62, as soon as you’re eligible, you’d only receive 32.5% of your ex-wife’s full benefit. You also can’t earn 8% delayed retirement credits each year should you hold out past full retirement age. Your benefit would cap out at 50% of your ex’s primary insurance amount.
Fortunately, you don’t need to make this into a guessing game. When you apply for Social Security, you can ask them to calculate both your retirement benefit and your spousal benefit. You’ll get whichever benefit is more. You can also use Social Security’s online calculators to estimate how much you’d get from retirement benefits vs. spousal benefits.
When it’s time to apply, Social Security will need to locate your ex-wife’s record. This process will be easier if you still have her Social Security number. Otherwise, you may need to provide her date of birth, where she was born, and the names of her parents. Also be prepared to provide a copy of your marriage certificate and divorce decree.
The bottom line here is that your ex’s Social Security doesn’t deserve to occupy any real estate in your brain. Focus on getting the maximum benefit for yourself, whether it’s through your own benefit or your ex’s.
Robin Hartill is a certified financial planner and a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. Send your tricky money questions to AskPenny@thepennyhoarder.com.