Will I Qualify for the Maximum Ex-Spousal Social Security Benefit?

Senior with money
Photo by Ljupco Smokovski / Shutterstock.com

Welcome to our “Social Security Q&A” series. You ask a question about Social Security, and a guest expert answers it.

You can learn how to ask a question of your own below. And if you would like a personalized report detailing your optimal Social Security claiming strategy, click here. Check it out: It could result in receiving thousands of dollars more in benefits over your lifetime!

Today’s question comes from Bernard:

“I have a question about collecting Social Security benefits from your ex-spouse’s benefits: How do you find out the full retirement benefits of your ex-spouse?”

2 ways to get key information

Bernard, your question is one that I hear frequently. What you are asking about is your ex-spouse’s primary insurance amount (PIA) — that is, the amount she will receive at her full retirement age. The value of knowing her PIA is that it allows you to calculate your potential maximum ex-spousal benefit at your full retirement age (FRA). Your maximum ex-spousal benefit is half of your ex-spouse’s PIA. As I discuss in detail below, it is unlikely that you will qualify for the maximum ex-spousal benefit.

Before going further with my discussion of ex-spousal benefits, I will address your question. There are two ways to get information on an ex-spouse’s benefits. First, you can simply ask the ex-spouse for the information. However, experience tells me that this is not an option for most people. Exes often lose touch with one another. Or, they have no interest in communicating with each other.

This brings us to the second option: You can contact the Social Security Administration, either by phone or by visiting your local SSA office. The SSA will not tell you anything about your ex-spouse’s PIA. However, the SSA is obligated to tell you about your ex-spousal benefit. Keep in mind that the SSA will require that you document that you were previously married and that you are now divorced. With perseverance on your part, you can eventually get the information you are seeking.

Once you know your maximum potential ex-spousal benefit, you can now figure out how much you can receive from this benefit, if anything.

Suppose that your maximum potential ex-spousal benefit is $1,200 and that your own PIA retirement benefit is $1,100. Under current rules, if you apply for one of these benefits, you must apply for both of them. (A different rule applies to those born in 1953 or earlier.)

So, if you apply for retirement benefits, you will also receive a supplement of ex-spousal benefits that provides you with a total of $1,200 — $1,100 in retirement benefits and $100 in ex-spousal benefits. As the example shows, what you actually receive in ex-spousal benefits may be a fraction of the maximum potential benefit.

Next, if your own retirement benefits (PIA) are more than the maximum potential ex-spousal benefit, you will receive no ex-spousal benefit. For example, suppose your PIA is $1,250. Since that amount exceeds the $1,200 potential ex-spousal benefit, you get nothing from that benefit.

For those born in 1953 or earlier, a different rule applies. In this case, you are not required to claim both benefits simultaneously, provided your claims are made after you reach your FRA. So, those in this group can claim ex-spousal benefits once they turn 66 (their FRA) and then switch to their own retirement benefits at a later date of their choosing (up to age 70).

Got a question you’d like answered?

You can submit a question for the “Social Security Q&A” series for free. Just hit “reply” to the Money Talks News newsletter and email your question. (If you don’t already receive the newsletter, you can sign up for free, too: Click here, and the sign-up box will pop up.)

You also can find all past answers from this series on the “Social Security Q&A” webpage.

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 SocialSecurityChoices.com, an internet company that provides advice on Social Security claiming decisions. You can learn more about that by clicking here.

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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