Welcome to our “Social Security Q&A” series. You ask a question about Social Security, and a guest expert answers it.
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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. Ex-spouses often lose touch with each other. 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).
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I hold a doctorate in economics from the University of Wisconsin and taught economics at the University of Delaware for many years.
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.