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  • Writer's pictureDavid J. Perrotto

What are ex-spousal benefits?

So, you have been divorced for a few years now, and are heading into your sixties, what are your social security options? Did you know you can collect what Social Security calls ex-spousal benefits? Social Security operates with a philosophy that a divorced person may deserve a personal benefit, having been the long-term partner and companion of a productive member of society. The benefit is similar to the spousal benefit that is available to a person who is still married.

Basically, there are two sets of rules that determine whether you qualify. The first one is if your ex-spouse is living, and the second applies if he's passed. Either way, it won't surprise you that the rules are complicated, and you'll need to take some time to navigate the rules, and become familiar with them. It may make sense to find a financial advisor that specializes in divorcees or retirees, to help guide you. Something important to know as well, Social Security is gender neutral. Though many of its rules date to a time when one-income ruled the household, with the man working and the woman staying home and raising the kids, everything that applies to a divorced woman would apply equally to a divorced man.

Also, any benefits that you as a divorced spouse might receive would have no effect on the amount of benefits your ex-spouse gets.

First let’s start with if your spouse is still living. Basically, you can receive benefits based on your ex-spouse's work record if your marriage lasted 10 years or longer, you are currently unmarried, you're 62 or older, and any retirement benefit that you're entitled to receive based on your own work record must be lower than the benefit you'd receive from your ex-spouse's record. You collect whichever benefit is higher. Sorry, you can't collect both, you can’t have your cake and eat it too. Lastly, it doesn't matter if your ex-spouse has remarried.

Either way, before anything can happen, there's a "test" for your ex-spouse, too. He must be entitled to Social Security retirement or disability benefits. If he qualifies for those benefits even if he has not begun taking them, Social Security will allow you as the ex-wife to go ahead and take your ex-spouse benefits, providing that you've been divorced for at least two years.

Not bad, right? Now how much you get depends on what you qualify for. If you're at full retirement age, you'll be eligible for 50 percent of whatever he would get. Now consider that filing early reduces that amount even more—between 6 ½ and 7 ½ percent for each year leading up to your full retirement age. So even filing at age 64 could mean a significant financial hit in the long term. Remember, if you take it early, you are permanently reducing your benefits.

That's basically the same as what would apply if you were still married and your husband retired: You could get a spouse's benefit of 50 percent.

Now let’s suppose your ex-spouse has already died. You would have to meet these conditions: You are 60 or older, or 50 if you're disabled, your marriage lasted at least 10 years, your own retirement benefit would not be higher than what you could claim on your ex-spouse's record, and lastly, there's a special twist concerning your marital status. If you remarry before age 60 (or 50 if you're disabled), you can't receive such a benefit. But if you remarry after 60 (50 if disabled), you can.

Now we move on to children. You can get benefits from your ex-spouse's record at any age if you're caring for that ex-spouse's child, who is also your natural or legally adopted child and who is younger than 16. Your benefits will continue until the child reaches 16 or is no longer disabled. Importantly, you can receive this benefit even if you weren't married to your ex-spouse for 10 years.

What about people who've had multiple marriages and divorce? Although it will depend on how long the marriages lasted and other circumstances. But they can't collect multiple benefits on the records of multiple ex-spouses. Just one. They also have to still follow the same requirements as well.

You may also be wondering, what if your ex-spouse remarried, and got divorced again, and his new ex-spouse applies for his benefit before you. With Social Security, it doesn't matter who gets there first. There isn't just one benefit available. If you meet the qualifications, you get a benefit, regardless of what another ex-spouse has or hasn't done. So, don’t worry!

So, lets help you actually collect an ex-spouse's benefit. You can either go online to Social Security or call 1-800-772-1213. Be prepared to provide documents that establish your right to the benefit. You'll likely be asked for your birth certificate, marriage license and divorce decree. Plus, you'll need your ex-spouse's Social Security number. If you don't know it, you'll be asked for his date and place of birth and the names of his parents, information which will allow Social Security to look the number up.

So, this gives you a quick summery about ex-spousal social security benefits, the requirements to get them, as well as how to get them. If any of this is too complicated for you, don’t hesitate to reach out to a financial advisor to help you out. You earned these benefits, make sure you get the best of them.

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