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  • Writer's pictureChris Stein, CFP®

When to Claim Divorced Spouse Benefit?

The Social Security Divorced Spouse Benefit can be a bit confusing. Recently we received an email question from a reader on this particular topic. She writes:

I was married for 14 years and divorced in 1990. My Ex and I were both born in 1952 and will reach our full retirement age in Oct 2018 at age 66. I intend to claim half his benefits since his are greater than mine, however he had to go on disability at age 65. Since he had to collect early, does this mean that my spousal benefit will be reduced? If so, should I collect early as well? 

A Couple of Points Regarding the Divorced Spouse Benefit

Before we answer her question, we would like to point out a couple of things regarding SS divorced spouse benefits. First of all, in a divorce situation you have to have been married at least 10 years to be able to claim a benefit based on your ex-spouse’s earnings. This couple was married for 14 years, so that isn’t a problem here.

On a side note regarding the SS 10 year rule: The SSA does not want to force someone to stay married to a bad spouse in order to get the SS spousal benefit. You can leave your spouse. You can legally separate. You can even file for legal protections. Just don’t finalize the divorce papers until the 10 years are up.

Second, the wording in the reader’s question is a little misleading. She won’t literally be taking half of her ex spouse’s benefits. Since they were married for more than 10 years, she is entitled to a spousal benefit. The amount of this benefit is based on her ex’s Primary Insurance Amount (PIA) and may equal up to half of her ex’s PIA. Her ex will still receive his full benefit. Whether or not she receives half of his PIA depends on her age when she files for her benefits, not the age he files for benefits.

Regarding the Question…

In this particular case, the reader’s ex-spouse had to file for his Social Security before his full retirement age. This will reduce his monthly benefit amount. The reader is curious to know if this will also reduce the amount she is entitled to. As mentioned above, no.

A divorced spouse benefit is not dependent on the age the working ex-spouse files for their retirement benefits. It is based on the age the non-working (or lower earning) ex-spouse file for benefits. So in the case of our reader, if she waits until her Full Retirement Age (FRA) to claim benefits, she will receive her maximum spousal benefit which is half her ex’s PIA irrespective of the age he filed for his retirement benefits. And although our reader did not ask about delaying her spousal benefits, we would like to add that she won’t earn any delayed retirement credits for delaying her spousal benefit beyond her FRA. Spousal benefits do not receive delayed retirement credits!

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