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You, Your Ex, and Your Social Security Benefits

If I’m married, can I collect Social Security based on either my Social Security contributions or my spouse’s contributions?

Yes. A married person can collect Social Security benefits based on either (1) that individual’s employment contributions to the Social Security system or (2) his or her spouse’s contribution record. Benefits paid to one spouse based on the other’s contribution record are called “derivative” or “spousal” benefits. The contributing spouse’s benefit will not decrease as a result of the spousal benefits.

What will happen if I am eligible to receive Social Security benefits based on my own contribution record as well as my spouse’s contribution record?

You will receive benefits based on your own contribution record first. But if your spouse’s benefit is higher, you will receive an additional amount based on your spouse’s record, and you will thereby collect a higher amount than you would have received on your record alone. Any benefits you receive based on your spouse’s record will not decrease the amount your spouse is entitled to receive.

When can I collect on my spouse’s Social Security record?

You may be eligible to collect benefits based on a contributing spouse’s Social Security record if you are at least 62 years of age and the contributing spouse is receiving or is eligible to receive retirement or disability benefits.

What is “full retirement age” (or normal retirement age)?

Full retirement age (or normal retirement age) is the age at which a person is entitled to full, unreduced retirement benefits. Congress has been gradually phasing in increases in the full retirement age from 65 to 67. Your full retirement age is determined by your year of birth.

What happens if my spouse begins taking Social Security after his or her full retirement age?

If your spouse is eligible to receive Social Security benefits but postpones receiving those benefits beyond full retirement age, the benefits will increase up to a certain point (he or she will be entitled to what’s called “delayed retirement credits.”) The amount of the increase will be based on his or her year of birth and length of delay.

What is the maximum benefit I could receive based on my spouse’s Social Security record?

The maximum Social Security benefit for a spouse is fifty percent of the contributing spouse’s benefit at full retirement age. These benefits, however, will not increase if the spouse decides to postpone taking Social Security past full retirement age and thereby receives an increase in benefits.

Will I be able to collect on my spouse’s Social Security record if we get divorced?

Yes, you will be able to collect on an ex-spouse’s Social Security record if:

  • the marriage lasted ten years or longer,
  • you are unmarried,
  • you are 62 years of age or older,
  • your ex-spouse is receiving or is eligible to receive Social Security retirement or disability benefits; and
  • your Social Security benefit is less than the benefit you would receive based on your ex-spouse’s Social Security record.

If I get remarried, will I still be able to collect on my ex-spouse’s Social Security record?

No. Remarriage typically cuts off your right to receive benefits based on your ex-spouse’s Social Security record. But if the later marriage ends due to death, divorce, or annulment, you may be able to collect benefits from your ex-spouse.

What if my ex-spouse is eligible to receive Social Security benefits but has not yet applied?

Regardless of whether the contributing spouse has applied for Social Security benefits, the noncontributing spouse can qualify for benefits based on the contributing spouse’s record as long as the parties have been divorced for at least two years.

May I start taking my ex-spouse’s benefits first and delay taking benefits based on my record??

As explained above, if you are eligible to receive benefits based on both contribution records, you typically will receive retirement benefits based on your record first. If your ex-spouse’s benefit is higher, you will receive your benefit plus additional benefits to equal your ex-spouse’s higher benefit amount. If, however, your ex-spouse was born prior to January 2, 1954, and has reached full retirement age, you have the option of receiving benefits based solely on your ex-spouse’s record while delaying your own retirement benefits. You may thereby be entitled to receive additional benefits. If your ex-spouse was born on January 2, 1954, or later, you have no option but to apply for all benefits at once, i.e., your own retirement benefits and the benefits from your ex-spouse.

Will I be able to collect Social Security benefits on my ex-spouse’s record if my ex-spouse dies before I die?

Yes. As long as the marriage lasted ten years or more, you will be able to collect Social Security benefits based on your deceased ex-spouse’s record. However, if you remarry before age 60, the remarriage will affect your ability to collect the survivor’s benefit. Any benefit paid to a surviving ex-spouse will not affect the benefit paid to other survivors entitled to receive benefits on the contributing spouse’s contribution record.

How is the survivor’s benefit calculated?

The survivor’s benefit is based on the deceased spouse’s earnings. The survivor will receive a percentage of the deceased spouse’s basic Social Security benefit, which is calculated based on the survivor’s age and type of benefit the survivor is eligible to receive. If the deceased spouse received a reduced monthly amount, then the surviving divorced spouse’s benefit will be based on that reduced amount. However, a surviving divorced spouse who is full retirement age or older will receive 100 percent of the deceased spouse’s benefit amount. In contrast, a surviving divorced spouse who is between age 60 and full retirement age will receive anywhere from 71.5 percent to 99 percent of the deceased spouse’s benefit amount.

When will I begin receiving the survivor’s benefit?

Typically, a surviving divorced spouse is eligible to receive reduced monthly benefits as early as age 60. The surviving divorced spouse can receive the benefit earlier if he or she is at least 50 years of age, disabled, and the disability occurred before or within seven years of the deceased spouse’s death. However, if you remarry before age 60 (or age 50 if disabled), you will lose the right to receive the survivor’s benefit unless the later marriage ends due to death, divorce, or annulment.

Will my military retirement benefits have any affect on my Social Security benefits?

Most likely your military retirement benefits will not have an affect on your Social Security benefits. However, any benefits received under the optional Department of Defense Survivors Benefit Plan may have an affect on Social Security survivor’s benefits. For more information, consult with the Department of Defense or your military retirement advisor.

What if I receive a pension from government employment that did not or does not permit my participation in the Social Security system?

If this is the case, benefits paid to you as the spouse (or ex-spouse) of a Social Security contributor will be affected by what’s known as the “government pension offset” (or GPO). Under the GPO, your Social Security benefit will be reduced by an amount equal to two-thirds of your government pension. For example, if you receive a monthly pension of $900, two-thirds of this amount ($600) will be deducted from your Social Security benefit. So if you are eligible to receive a $1,000-spouse’s/widow’s/widower’s benefit, you will receive $400 per month from Social Security ($1,000 – $600 = $400). If two-thirds of your monthly pension amount is more than your monthly Social Security benefit, you may receive a very small Social Security benefit or none at all.

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Meredith J. Parker

Parker Bryan Family Law

Raleigh, NC