Dear Penny: Can I Get My Ex-Husband’s Social Security Before He’s Eligible?

This illustration shows two elderly people sitting on separate stacks of coins. The man is sitting on more coins than the woman to show income inequality.
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Dear Penny,

I was married to a man for almost 19 years when he decided (unbeknownst to me) that he wanted a divorce. I felt that we had a happy marriage the majority of those years. We only had the occasional disagreement, as most marriages do. 

In fact, he didn’t tell me until after the divorce was finalized his reasons for leaving me. He is the father of our two children. It was very devastating for me as well as our children when he left, although he has tried to be a good dad since the divorce and is very involved in their lives. I am 10 years 8 months older than him and am now 60 years old. He has remarried twice in the nine years since our divorce.

I have known for a long time that I can collect Social Security benefits based on his employment, since it will be much higher than my own benefit. However, I didn’t realize until recently (and wasn’t told by my financial planner) that I can’t start collecting Social Security benefits until HE is at full retirement age and not when I am at full retirement age. That would mean I will be in my 70s.

Please tell me exactly when I can start collecting my Social Security benefits based off his income. And is it based off his income when he retires, or his income when we got divorced? Also, is it possible for me to collect Social Security from my own work record when I am at full retirement age and then switch to his benefits when he is at full retirement age?

-S.

Dear S.,

Let’s get the bad news out of the way first: You have to wait until your ex-husband is eligible for Social Security benefits to collect on his record, but you don’t have to wait until he’s reached full retirement age. For anyone born in 1960 or later, full retirement age is 67. That means you’d be eligible for spousal benefits when your ex is 62, not 67.

Of course, that doesn’t do you much good. You’d still be at least 72 by the time you could start spousal benefits.



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You can’t take your own benefits and switch to your ex-husband’s benefit later on. That’s an option that’s only available if you were born before Jan. 2, 1954. (The same rule applies for people who want to start with a spousal benefit and then switch to their own benefit later.)

Social Security allows divorced spouse benefits because both spouses contribute economically to a marriage, even if one person earns a lot more. But unfortunately, the rules leave the lower-earning spouse in a bind if they’re significantly older.

I get that all of this is difficult to accept, especially given that you were blindsided by the end of your marriage. But you need to focus on how to maximize your own retirement benefits. Claiming your ex’s benefits simply isn’t viable.

Even though your ex-husband outearned you, don’t assume that you’d collect more if spousal benefits were a possibility. The maximum spousal benefit is 50% of the spouse’s full retirement age benefit — and that’s only for spouses and ex-spouses who wait until their own full retirement age. Spouses who start at age 62 only receive 32.5%.

When you take your own retirement benefits, you can earn 8% delayed retirement credits for each year you hold off past full retirement age until you’re 70. But you can’t earn delayed retirement credits with spousal benefits. You’d collect your maximum benefit at 67, your full retirement age.

Many people will actually get more money taking their own benefit instead of spousal benefits, even when the spouse was the much higher earner. As of April 2022, the average monthly spousal benefit was just $837, compared to $1,666 for retired workers.

Social Security bases benefits on 35 years’ worth of earnings. If you work less than 35 years, your income for the non-working years is entered as zero. The more years you can work, obviously, the bigger your benefit will be.

You’ll probably want to delay benefits for as long as possible, especially if you’re in good health. Starting Social Security at age 70 results in a benefit that’s about 77% higher compared to starting as soon as you’re eligible at 62.

In the meantime, focus on saving as much as possible for retirement. Since you’re over 50, you can contribute $7,000 to a Roth IRA in 2022. The limits for most workplace plans, like 401(k)s and 403(b)s are even higher. You can contribute up to $20,500 plus an extra $6,500 catch-up that’s allowed for people 50 and older.

I’m sorry that you’ve been dealt this most difficult hand. But focus on what you can control.

There’s still a lot you can do to secure the comfortable retirement you deserve.

Robin Hartill is a certified financial planner and a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. Send your tricky money questions to [email protected].