The Social Security Administration has a provision that allows people to claim benefits on an ex-spouse's account if they were married to that person for 10 years or more. That's straightforward but sorting out the details from there can get confusing. Questions about ex-spouse benefits come up regularly in my work shops. Even what your financial adviser tells you or what you read somewhere may be inaccurate when it comes to your particular situation. Bankrate.com offers a summary at http://www.bankrate.com/financing/retirement/ex-spouses-and-social-security/
After looking into this issue and vetting it with a contact at Social Security my conclusion is that you should have a face-to-face session at your local Social Security office (800-772-1213) to find out how the rules may apply to you. I've also concluded that in collecting on an ex-spouse's account it works best if you are 62 or older and single or that the ex-spouse is dead.
If he's not dead (even though you might wish him dead), it's best to wait until your own full-retirement age (66), then collect on his account and only collect on your own account at age 70 at a higher monthly pay-out rate. Here are several scenarios for how Social Security spousal rules apply:
Scenario No. 1 Your ex-spouse is living and has re-married.
First, you CAN NOT also be re-married and collect on your living ex-spouse's account before your full retirement age. Next, you CAN NOT collect on a spousal account unless you are at least 62 years old (minimum retirement age). There are exceptions if you are caring for a child under age 16 of you ex-spouse. Further, according to Alan Edwards with the Social Security Administration in Portland, your ex-spouse must either be receiving benefits, or entitled to receive them. And finally, if you are less than "full retirement age" (for me that's 66), you must file for benefits based on your own employment (NOT your ex-spouse's).
Scenario No. 2: Your ex-spouse is deceased. If you were married more than 10 years to an ex-spouse who is dead, no problem. You CAN take the benefit before your full-retirement age. Reduced survivor benefits are payable at age 60 or as early as age 50, if you (the survivor) are disabled. For women, this can be a big benefit. It's a way to gain retirement income without tapping their own Social Security account until the higher full retirement age or even later. It's a way to take advantage of "delayed retirement credits." You may also remarry after age 60 and keep the survivors benefit.
Scenario No. 3: You've already claimed benefits on your own account. If you have started taking Social Security benefits on your own account and an ex-spouse dies, go back and talk to Social Security. The rules change. You may then be eligible to file a claim on that account before your own full-retirement age. Even if you've been collecting on your own account, you may be able to switch to the spousal account.
Scenario No. 4: What if you've remarried, but your current husband dies? Everything changes if you are married and your current spouse dies. You only have to be married to this person for nine months to claim Social Security benefits on his account. There are some exceptions to this rule related to a traumatic or accidental death.
Having spent some time at http://www.socialsecurity.gov/ I can say the agency's Web site is generally easy to navigate, but on the topic of spousal benefits, ferreting out the information is a challenge. This is an area of confusion for many women.
If your 60 & Single and wondering or worrying about what you might be able to claim on an ex-spouse's account, don't wait. Go find out in person where you stand and learn what your benefit options are from a Social Security Administration expert. For answers or to set up an appointment, call Social Security's toll-free number at 800-772-1213. My personal face-to-face meeting was extremely helpful. I know what my options are and what to expect.
Every case is different and what you might have heard from a friend, or from a financial adviser or even have read in the newspaper may not be accurate.
More information sources:
Social Security Administration, click here for ex-spouse policy
AARP, click here.
"What Every Woman Should Know," from the Social Security Administration, booklet.
Bankrate.com, "Ex-spouses and Social Security."
"Divorce and Social Security" at http://www.divorcenet.com/.
"Social Security and Divorce" at http://www.wife.org/