Dear Penny: Can I Collect My Ex-Husband’s Social Security if He’s Only 54?

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Dear Penny,

I’m in the process of divorce. It’s been two years since I’ve filed. My husband makes more money than I do. I’m disabled and can’t work. I hardly have an income coming in right now! 

I’m going to be 62 in four months. He is 54. Would I be able to get his Social Security if I retire at 62?

-Legally Separated

Dear Separated,

Bad news first: If you’re collecting Social Security based on a former spouse’s earnings, your ex needs to be eligible for benefits. That means if you apply after your divorce is finalized, your soon-to-be-ex would either need to be age 62 or on disability. If you applied for benefits on his record while you’re still married, he’d not only have to be eligible for benefits. He’d have to actually be taking them.

Now for the good news: Since you’re over age 60 and unable to work, qualifying for Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) benefits may be easier than you think. You may get more money each month than you would if you took retirement benefits at 62.

Dear Penny

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A lot of older workers are tempted to start Social Security retirement checks early when a health condition precludes them from holding a job. That’s understandable, because getting approved for disability can be a long and cumbersome process. But starting retirement benefits early instead of applying for disability is a mistake in many cases.

Social Security weighs a host of factors when you apply for disability, including the type of work you did previously and what job skills you learned. If your disability prevents you from doing a job that’s similar to your past work, Social Security considers your ability to adjust to other types of work.

Social Security wouldn’t deem you disabled solely based on how old you are. But by the time you’re 55, your age is considered a significant factor that affects your ability to adjust to new types of work. The rules are even more favorable for people ages 60 and older. You’re about twice as likely to collect SSDI if you’re 60 or older than you are at age 50, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The big advantage of taking SSDI over early Social Security is that you won’t permanently reduce your benefits. Disability checks based on the amount you’ve paid into Social Security, as if you’d already reached full retirement age. Once you reach full retirement age — which is 67 if you were born in 1960 or later — you’ll automatically convert to retirement benefits. Your payment probably won’t change. After 24 months of SSDI, you’d also automatically qualify for Medicare Parts A and B.

However, if you took retirement benefits at age 62, your payments will be reduced by about 30%. When you take benefits based on a spouse’s or ex-spouse’s record, the most you can receive is 50% of their full retirement benefit. Even when one spouse earns more, the other spouse will often get more by claiming benefits based on their own work history.

To boost your odds of success, consult with a Social Security disability attorney. Typically, they work on contingency, which means they don’t get paid unless you win your claim. If that occurs, their fees are usually capped at the lesser of $6,000, or 25% of your back pay.

If SSDI doesn’t seem feasible, it’s essential to negotiate for alimony as you finalize your divorce. Doing so could allow you to hold out for a bigger retirement benefit.

Claiming Social Security is more or less a permanent decision. If you’re unable to work, it’s vital that you try to get disability first before you accept lower payments for the rest of your life.

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