Dear Penny Answers Your Questions About Claiming Your Ex’s Social Security

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Dear Readers,
Two weeks ago, I answered a question from a woman who wanted to know if she needed her ex-husband’s permission to claim his Social Security benefits. (In case you missed it, the answer is no.) Nearly 300 of you emailed me with follow-up questions about exes and Social Security. So today, let’s tackle a few more together … with the caveat that for the trickiest questions, the answer is “Call the Social Security office.”


So are you telling me my husband’s ex-wife can actually get my husband’s Social Security benefits while I’m still married to him? Do I have to fight her for this Social Security? He makes more than I do, and if he passed, I’d need that money to live on. 

There’s no need to fight over this man or his Social Security. While your husband is alive, all three of you can claim based on his work record. If he dies, both you and his ex-wife can collect. Her Social Security decisions have absolutely no impact on your benefits or your husband’s.

I’ve been married three times. All three marriages lasted 10 years or longer. Would I qualify for all three benefits, or would I choose the one that would benefit me the best? 

You can only claim one person’s benefit, but you don’t have to do the guesswork to make this decision. Simply call Social Security and ask them whose record will give you the best benefit. If you’d qualify for money based on your own record, that’s what you’ll get. Of course, I’m assuming that when you say you’ve been married three times that you’ve also been divorced three times. If you’re still married, you can’t claim on an ex’s record.

When I turn 60, I can claim my deceased husband’s Social Security. As his widow, will I get the full amount or 50%?

First, an FYI for those reading: Unlike regular Social Security benefits, which require you to wait until you’re 62, you can start survivor benefits at 60, or age 50 if you’re disabled. But as with regular benefits, you’ll get more if you wait. You’ll receive 71.5% of his full retirement benefit if you start at 60. Wait until your full retirement age, which is 67 if you were born in 1960 or later, and you’ll get 100% of his benefit.

I’m 65 and was married to a man for 40 years. We divorced nine years ago. I’ve been drawing my Social Security and a portion of his Social Security. He remarried six years ago. When he dies, will I receive more Social Security if I’m still alive?

Most likely. The maximum you can collect from a living current or ex-spouse is 50% of their full benefit. (As you describe, Social Security gives you whatever you qualify for based on your own record and then uses the ex-spouse’s record to get to the 50% maximum.) But as long as you’re eligible for divorce benefits now, you should qualify for survivor benefits if he dies before you. Like widowed spouses, surviving ex-spouse’s can get anywhere from 71.5% to 100% of the deceased spouse’s full retirement benefit, depending on when they claim.

My sister’s husband died suddenly a little over a month ago. She is 65. Since she paid into her county pension plan most of her adult life, she only gets a very small Social Security benefit from jobs she worked prior to her career. However, her husband did pay into Social Security his entire life, so his benefit is higher. She called Social Security and was told she’s not eligible for survivor benefits because of her pension. I’m concerned that she may not have understood correctly since she’s in so much grief.

I’m so sorry for your family’s loss. For people like your sister who have pensions and didn’t pay into Social Security, a rule called the Government Pension Offset applies. When you claim Social Security spousal or survivor benefits, two-thirds of your monthly pension payment will be deducted from the Social Security payment. So if your sister receives $3,000 a month from her pension, $2,000 would be deducted from her survivor benefit. If she would normally have qualified for a $2,500 survivor benefit, she’d get $500 a month from Social Security. But if the survivor benefit is less than $2,000, unfortunately, she wouldn’t qualify for anything because her pension would completely offset the benefit.

I’ve been married since 1992. We never divorced, and I have never remarried… well, because I never was divorced. People tell me to stay married to him so I can draw his Social Security when and if he passes before I do, but he really never worked much anyway. I guess I want to know if I should just divorce him?

I can’t tell you whether you should divorce this man. What I can say is that whether you stay or you go, it won’t make a difference to your survivor benefits.

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