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Opus 17
Level 15

Accessing (ex)spousal social security

My question is whether or not, and how, I might be able to leverage my ex-wife’s Social Security benefit to retire early or at a higher income level.

 

The facts:

1. I am 55 and my ex-wife 54. We were married 24 years and divorced 10 years ago, she has remarried, I have not and have no plans to.

2. For most of our marriage, my ex-wife earned double what I earned at the time.  For the last 15 years or so, she has been at or above the Social Security maximum wage base.

3. My ex plans to retire early, I don’t know exactly when or what other funds she and her new husband have to support this.

4. My 35 work history with SSA includes several years with zero earnings because I was a graduate student or research fellow and not paying into the system.

5. I have been anticipating I will not retire until age 70, because each additional work year after 67 not only gives me the usual statutory bump in SS benefit, but will also increase my SS benefit by replacing one of my zero wage years.

6. I currently have 3x annual gross salary in qualified retirement accounts, mostly pre-tax.  I am contributing 25% of my salary each year, about half pre-tax and half Roth or designated Roth.  I expect to receive another 3x my annual salary from my father’s estate whenever he passes (he’s currently a healthy 81).

 

I would like to understand more about the rules that would allow me collect a partial benefit based on my ex-wife’s earnings, and if there is a strategy that would allow me to retire earlier than I planned, or increase my benefit, or both. 

*Answers are correct to the best of my ability at the time of posting but do not constitute legal or tax advice.*
12 Replies
VincentL12345
Employee Tax & Finance Expert

Accessing (ex)spousal social security

This reference is directed to your ex-spouse but applies to you. This is from the SSA website:
If you are divorced, your ex-spouse can receive benefits based on your record (even if you have remarried) if:

  • Your marriage lasted 10 years or longer.
  • Your ex-spouse is unmarried.
  • Your ex-spouse is age 62 or older.
  • The benefit that your ex-spouse is entitled to receive based on their own work is less than the benefit they would receive based on your work.
  • You are entitled to Social Security retirement or disability benefits.
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Jparker33
New Member

Accessing (ex)spousal social security

I have a question on this topic, but I am in the opposite category,i.e., my ex-spouse filed on my work record, and got a higher benefit on my record that she would have gotten on hers.  When she turns 70, she will switch to her own benefit, which will then be better than her spousal benefit on my work record.  However, I have a feeling that the same pathway would not help me, because the spousal benefit on her work record would still be less than my benefit today (age 68).  We were married more than 10 years, divorced years ago, each waived any future claim against the other's social security (later determined to be unenforceable vis-a-vis the (ex) spousal benefit), and neither spouse has re-married. 

Though I am not expert on the technicalities of Social Security, I do know the underlying philosophy of the program, which is to punish the productive and reward the indolent.  They would be quick to say that this does not affect my individual benefit at age 70, but that is not correct- it is things like this that are driving the program to insolvency, where it already is saying that they will be unable to pay the promised benefits as early as 2035.

Opus 17
Level 15

Accessing (ex)spousal social security

I know that basic fact, the question is how to take advantage of it.

 

For example, I think that if I declare at FRA (age 67), I can collect 50% of my wife's benefit, then declare for myself at age 70 and collect my own benefit (which will be less than my ex's full benefit but more than 50% of her benefit)?   Then, can I/should I continue to work to bump up my earnings history?  What other options are there, and what mistakes do I need to avoid. 

 

[Edited to add]

This strategy is no longer allowed.

https://www.ssa.gov/benefits/retirement/planner/claiming.html

*Answers are correct to the best of my ability at the time of posting but do not constitute legal or tax advice.*
Opus 17
Level 15

Accessing (ex)spousal social security


@Jparker33 wrote:

I have a question on this topic, but I am in the opposite category,i.e., my ex-spouse filed on my work record, and got a higher benefit on my record that she would have gotten on hers.  When she turns 70, she will switch to her own benefit, which will then be better than her spousal benefit on my work record.  However, I have a feeling that the same pathway would not help me, because the spousal benefit on her work record would still be less than my benefit today (age 68).  We were married more than 10 years, divorced years ago, each waived any future claim against the other's social security (later determined to be unenforceable vis-a-vis the (ex) spousal benefit), and neither spouse has re-married. 

Though I am not expert on the technicalities of Social Security, I do know the underlying philosophy of the program, which is to punish the productive and reward the indolent.  They would be quick to say that this does not affect my individual benefit at age 70, but that is not correct- it is things like this that are driving the program to insolvency, where it already is saying that they will be unable to pay the promised benefits as early as 2035.


The most your ex can get is 50% of your benefit; likewise you would get 50% of their benefit if you declared on their record.

 

The rules were created to protect spouses whose work history was negatively impacted by staying home to raise kids and so on.  (In my case, I worked a low paying job and delayed school so my wife could go to college.  As a result, she has always earned more than me, and even though I am starting to catch up, my 35 year history will always be less than hers.)

 

If you're worried about insolvency, you need to talk to Congress. 

*Answers are correct to the best of my ability at the time of posting but do not constitute legal or tax advice.*
Jparker33
New Member

Accessing (ex)spousal social security

This gentlemen's post captures precisely my ex-wife's situation and plan, which gets more money out of the program that she could have received on her own record.  Is that the intention of the program?  To "level" the benefits across workers of disparate incomes?

VincentL12345
Employee Tax & Finance Expert

Accessing (ex)spousal social security

The SSA claiming strategies have changed over the years. The current claiming strategy is at this link:

https://www.ssa.gov/benefits/retirement/planner/claiming.html

 

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Opus 17
Level 15

Accessing (ex)spousal social security


@VincentL12345 wrote:

The SSA claiming strategies have changed over the years. The current claiming strategy is at this link:

https://www.ssa.gov/benefits/retirement/planner/claiming.html

 


Yes, I just saw that the "file on your ex while continuing to build your own credits" strategy no longer works.

 

*Answers are correct to the best of my ability at the time of posting but do not constitute legal or tax advice.*
Jparker33
New Member

Accessing (ex)spousal social security

Very interesting.  This means that my ex-spouse really optimized by falling through the cracks of the transition rule-she retired, on my benefit, at her full retirement age of 66 in 2019, and can still receive her own higher benefit when she reaches 70 in 2023, because she turned 62 in 2015, which was "before 2016."  Right?

Opus 17
Level 15

Accessing (ex)spousal social security


@Jparker33 wrote:

This gentlemen's post captures precisely my ex-wife's situation and plan, which gets more money out of the program that she could have received on her own record.  Is that the intention of the program?  To "level" the benefits across workers of disparate incomes?


The rules changed for persons who turned 62 after 2016.  People in that situation (age 67 or less today) can't file for spousal benefit and then switch to their own.

https://www.ssa.gov/benefits/retirement/planner/claiming.html

 

My previous comment was based on the old rules.

 

*Answers are correct to the best of my ability at the time of posting but do not constitute legal or tax advice.*
Jparker33
New Member

Accessing (ex)spousal social security

Please note my intervening post-my ex-spouse avoided this, because she turned 67 in 2020.

Opus 17
Level 15

Accessing (ex)spousal social security


@Jparker33 wrote:

Please note my intervening post-my ex-spouse avoided this, because she turned 67 in 2020.


Then she benefits from the way the system was set up.  There's no fault in following the rules to the maximum benefit.  If the rules were bad or poorly thought out, that's the fault of the rulemaker, not the person who follows them.  And it does seem Congress has eliminated this provision for the future.  It would probably have been seen as unfair if Congress changed the rules for everyone, even people who were close to retirement and had made their plans based on the old rules.  Hence the  1954 cutoff date. 

*Answers are correct to the best of my ability at the time of posting but do not constitute legal or tax advice.*
Tony5658
Level 1

Accessing (ex)spousal social security

Personally still seems unfair to me (1956) as I was proactive and was already planning per the old rules. But I do get your point. We are talking the government here, and we all know how they have their own rules and benefits.

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