Dear Penny: Can I Take My Ex-Wife’s Social Security if I Already Get SSDI?

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Dear Penny,

I am 63 years old, disabled and collect SSDI. My ex-wife currently pays me alimony ($360 per month) and will do so until I turn 65. I cannot work, and I’m worried I won’t be able to support myself solely on my SSDI monthly income without that additional $360.

We were married from 1980 until 2017. She was the plaintiff in the divorce and filed on the basis of irreconcilable differences. I don’t have a copy of our marriage license, but I do have the divorce decree. I have no way of obtaining her Social Security number. She currently lives in Florida. (Her return address on the alimony checks is a Florida address.) She was born in 1959.

She is currently, or had been self-employed as a licensed mental health counselor. I don’t know her current employment status now, as we have no contact with each other. Therefore, I don’t know if she has filed for Social Security benefits.

I believe she inherited a significant amount of money when her mom passed away not long after the divorce which (I’m guessing) she has in a trust fund. I was told I don’t have any rights to any portion of that inheritance, despite the fact that we were married 36 years.

Since she is in a much better position financially, I’m wondering if I have the right to claim a portion of her Social Security when she files, if she hasn’t already. 

-R.

Dear R.,

You’d qualify for spousal benefits based on your ex-wife’s earnings. But that probably won’t do you much good. Social Security doesn’t allow for double-dipping. You can receive your own benefit or a spousal benefit, but not both. Social Security gives you whichever one is higher.

Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits are based on your own earnings. Essentially, your benefit is calculated as if you’d reached full retirement age. But the maximum spousal benefit is just 50% of the other person’s full retirement age benefit.

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Even if your ex-wife significantly outearned you, your SSDI benefit is probably more than you’d receive through spousal benefits. As of August 2022, the average Social Security disability benefit was about 63% higher than the average spousal benefit.

This doesn’t have to be a guessing game, though. You can call Social Security and provide them with the information you have about your ex-wife. While having her Social Security number would make things easier, staff can still help you locate her earnings record without it. That way you’ll know with certainty that you’re not leaving money on the table.

Unfortunately, I have to layer on more bad news: The person who told you that you have zero rights to your ex’s inheritance was correct. Even if you’d stayed married, you wouldn’t have been entitled to that money. Inheritances are generally treated as separate property, rather than marital property, meaning they belong exclusively to the inheriting spouse.

So where does that leave you? You know that you’re facing a potential $360 budget shortfall. You know that the odds of squeezing more money out of Social Security are slim and that the hole won’t be filled by your wife’s inheritance. So you have two years to prepare.

If you own your home and have significant equity, consider taking out a reverse mortgage. Otherwise, if you have an extra bedroom, perhaps you could take in a renter to generate extra income.

You should also investigate whether you qualify for benefits beyond your SSDI payments. A good place to start is benefits.gov. For example, maybe you’d qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or a Medicare Savings Program.

Though you say that you’re unable to work, consider just how much work has changed in the last few years. Even if you’re not able to report to an on-site job with regular hours, might it be possible for you to earn extra money with gig work or a remote job?

You only need to replace about $90 a week. You’re allowed to earn up to $1,350 a month (or $2,250 if you’re blind) while receiving Social Security disability in 2022. These limits will probably rise slightly in 2023. And once you reach full retirement age at 67, your disability will convert to retirement benefits, and you’ll have no income limits.

You’re probably on a tight budget already. But if it’s possible to set aside any money from your alimony now — even if it’s just $25 or $50 a month — try to do so, in order to build yourself a cushion for when those checks end.

Knowing that your alimony payments will eventually dry up has to be stressful, given that you’re on a fixed income. But at least you have time to prepare. Use the next two years to explore alternative sources of income and benefits.

Does your balance sheet need a reset? Try these smart ways to organize your finances.

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