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Your 10-Year Reward

James McGlynn  |  July 7, 2020

IF YOU’RE MARRIED, filing for Social Security can be confusing. But there’s one group who has it even worse—those who are divorced.

In recent weeks, I’ve had a number of conversations with women who had no idea that they were even eligible for spousal benefits based on their ex-husband’s earnings record. (I also recently watched the television show Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story, which gave completely erroneous advice on benefits for ex-spouses.) My hope: Someone reading this may learn that he or she is eligible for spousal or survivor benefits from an ex-spouse.

A divorced spouse is eligible for Social Security spousal benefits if he or she was married for 10 years or more. Period. Being married for only nine-and-a-half years doesn’t cut it. Every divorce lawyer in the country should be aware that it’s worth delaying a divorce, so the marriage officially lasts at least 10 years.

There are other mistakes and misconceptions among those who are divorced. The ex-spouse isn’t informed that you’re filing. The ex-spouse can’t prevent you from filing. As long as you’ve been divorced for more than two years, you’re aged 62 or older and your ex-spouse is at least age 62, you would be eligible for Social Security spousal benefits, as long as the marriage lasted 10-plus years.

There are also misconceptions about when to file for spousal benefits. Unlike filing for Social Security benefits based on your own earnings record, where it often pays to delay to age 70, there’s no advantage to delaying spousal benefits beyond your full retirement age, which is age 66 or 67, depending on the year you were born. If you’re planning to receive only spousal benefits, because the benefit based on your own earnings record is modest, you shouldn’t wait to age 70, but rather file no later than your full retirement age.

It doesn’t matter if your ex-husband or ex-wife has remarried. Filing for spousal benefits doesn’t reduce benefits for his or her new spouse. If you have remarried, however, you can’t file for spousal benefits based on your ex-spouse’s earnings record. Instead, you’d be eligible based on your new spouse’s earnings record.

This brings me to another common mistake that can be costly—and it has to do with survivor benefits. Spousal benefits are benefits for when the spouse or ex-spouse is alive. Survivor benefits are benefits for when the spouse or ex-spouse is deceased. For those who are divorced, Social Security has different eligibility rules for survivor benefits.

If you remarry before age 60, you aren’t eligible for survivor benefits based on your ex-spouse’s earnings record. But if you remarry after age 60, but your earlier marriage had lasted 10-plus years, you should have the option to receive a survivor benefit from either your current spouse or your ex-spouse. Just as every divorce lawyer should be aware that a marriage needs to last 10 years to be eligible for spousal or survivor benefits, every engaged couple should be aware that if they’re marrying in their late 50s, they might want to wait to age 60 to be eligible for survivor benefits based on an ex-spouse’s earnings record.

The bottom line: Keep in mind four crucial rules. First, if you were married at least 10 years, you might be eligible for spousal or survivor benefits. Second, if you’re divorcing, you might want to make sure your marriage lasts at least 10 years. Third, if you’re remarrying, you might want to wait until age 60. And finally, if you’re filing for spousal benefits, there’s no advantage to delaying beyond your full retirement age.

James McGlynn, CFA, RICP, is chief executive of Next Quarter Century LLC in Fort Worth, Texas, a firm focused on helping clients make smarter decisions about long-term-care insurance, Social Security and other retirement planning issues. He was a mutual fund manager for 30 years. James is the author of Retirement Planning Tips for Baby Boomers. His previous articles include Four Simple TipsFilling the Gap and Four Opportunities.

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