Can I Piggyback on My Ex-Wife’s Social Security Benefit?

Rich ex-wife
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This week’s question comes from Michael:

“I was divorced almost 20 years ago after 18 years of marriage. I was a stay-at-home parent for 10 years, so I lost a lot of income, plus I never made as much as my ex even when I was working. I never remarried and have learned that I can claim Social Security benefits based on my ex-spouse’s income. I’m three years older than my ex. Do I have to wait till my ex is 67 to get full benefits, or can I collect full benefits when I turn 67?”

The ‘less-than-one-half’ rule

Michael, since you were married for at least 10 years and are not currently married, you do qualify — at least potentially — for ex-spousal benefits.

I say “potentially” eligible for ex-spousal benefits because there is another key requirement: Namely, your full retirement age (FRA) benefit (at 67) must be less than one-half your ex’s FRA benefit (also at 67) in order for you to receive any ex-spousal benefit.

For example, suppose your FRA benefit is $1,200. Your ex’s FRA benefit would need to exceed $2,400 before you can get anything on her record. So, the fact that your ex earned more than you may not help you in this context.

To illustrate how ex-spousal (or spousal) benefits are calculated, let’s assume that your FRA benefit is $1,000 and that your ex’s FRA benefit is $2,600. At a maximum, you could receive a spousal supplement of $300 — the amount needed to bring your $1,000 up to $1,300, one-half of your ex’s FRA benefit.

If you claimed prior to your FRA, you face early claiming penalties on both your own benefit and on any spousal supplement. For someone with your FRA of 67, these penalties can be as high as 30% for your own benefit and 35% for any ex-spousal (or spousal) benefit.

The advantage of being divorced

As a divorced person, you do have an advantage over a married spouse: You can claim an ex-spousal benefit even though your ex has not claimed her own benefits, provided your ex is at least 62. If you were married, your spouse would need to claim her own benefit before you could claim any spousal benefit.

Michael, since you were born after 1953, you do not have the option of claiming the ex-spousal benefit while delaying the claiming of your own retirement benefits. Under current rules, if you claim one of those benefits, you must claim both of them.

One final point: Even if Michael had remarried but then got divorced again, he would still qualify for ex-spousal benefits from the first wife. If his hypothetical second marriage had lasted at least 10 years, then he could have selected which ex to use when filing for an ex-spousal benefit.

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About me

I hold a doctorate in economics from the University of Wisconsin and taught economics at the University of Delaware for many years. In 2009, I co-founded, an internet company that provides advice on Social Security claiming decisions. You can learn more about that by clicking here.

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Disclaimer: We strive to provide accurate information with regard to the subject matter covered. It is offered with the understanding that we are not offering legal, accounting, investment or other professional advice or services, and that the SSA alone makes all final determinations on your eligibility for benefits and the benefit amounts. Our advice on claiming strategies does not comprise a comprehensive financial plan. You should consult with your financial adviser regarding your individual situation.

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