Divorced? You May Be Able To Tap Your Ex-Spouse's Social Security Benefit

06/02/2015 07:49 am ET | Updated Jun 02, 2016

You may not have spoken to your ex-spouse in a decade (and have no interest in doing so!) but, even 10 years or more after your divorce, you could actually benefit from it financially.

And most people don't even know it.

Yup, for those with a limited work history and who don't stand to make much in social security benefits, they could hugely benefit from drawing from an ex-spouse. Others, who have a strong work history and want a bridge to retirement before they start taking their own Social Security benefits, can use their ex-spouse to start the benefits flowing.

"It's an important topic because so many people are divorced, but it seems women know about these benefits while men seem to overlook it," says Andy Landis, a former Social Security Administration claims administrator an author of Social Security: The Inside Story. "A man seems to tend to want to file on his own record."

The rules are fairly straightforward. In a nutshell, if you're 62 and older and your former spouse is 62 and older, you were married for at least 10 years, been divorced for at least two, and are now single, you could qualify.

Why women are often aware of it more than men is that on average their own earnings are often not as big, and they tend to be more worried about money after a divorce, Landis says.

"It's interesting," he says. "When I have a live group of 30 people in a room and slides with a 'Madam X,' and I ask if Madam X can file on her ex-husband's Social Security when she gets retired, almost always it's a bunch of female voices that say yes. The women know, and the men are quieter about that."

So if you're 62, you can file against your ex-spouse and earn 35 percent of their benefit. If you wait until 66, you can earn 50 percent of their benefit. It falls within that range if you file between those ages.

"While it maxes out at 50 percent, there's a big exception to that, too," Landis says. "If the ex is deceased, it can be up to 100 percent of the ex's payment. I get a laugh out of that one, too. That's not supposed to be an incentive. If you're the husband, think about it. She's going to get 50 percent while you're alive and 100 percent if you're dead."

To get ex-spouse Social Security, there had to be a 10-year marriage before the divorce. That's the biggest tripping point, because if you divorce at nine years and 10 months, you shouldn't have signed those papers until you had 10 years, Landis says. The other big tipping point is being single. Landis, who gives public presentations on the subject, says he once got a phone call from one of the outlying islands in Washington State from a woman who's an artist and has very low Social Security and asks how she can get more.

"I said maybe you can get on as a spouse, and she said she's married to an artist and his Social Security is really low, too," Landis says. "She said she used to be married to an airline pilot, and I said that's great because you can file as an ex-spouse on his, but you're currently married. I told her she had to be single to get on as an ex-spouse. I hear her yelling to the other room, 'honey. This guy says we can get more money if we're divorced.' He says, 'sounds good to me.' I don't know what they did, but I have heard of people at least considering a divorce of convenience so they can file on an ex-spouse's record. Her best pay was going to be filing on the airline pilot's record. That seems like a lot of trouble to get a little more money on your Social Security, but maybe she needed the money."

If you file before you reach full retirement age of 66, you'd need to file your own Social Security paperwork plus some for spousal payment. It's a bundled deal, and no, you can't take the spousal payment at 62 and switch to yours at 66 or 70.

But there are other options you can use to your advantage, Landis says.

If you're still working, you can wait to 66 to file for the ex-spouse payments, which are usually pretty low because they're limited to 50 percent. You can draw them for four years and wait until your own benefit rises and maxes out at 70.

"For those four years, you can draw the ex-spouse payment as a bridge to get you to your own payments that can be at 132 percent," Landis says. "You can even be working during that time part time or full time. Most wouldn't have figured that into their retirement picture."

The ex-spouse payment might be anywhere from $500 to $1,200 a month, and if you're working a part-time job, none of those earnings would be subject to Social Security reductions once you turn 66, Landis says. Your own benefit jumps 32 percent by taking it at 70 instead of 66, he says.

"It's a plan to partially retire at 66 with part-time income, plus drawing some Social Security as yours is getting bigger every month," Landis says. "That's a real good plan, an awesome plan for someone who thinks they can't retire."

Landis says men need to set their ego aside and file on their ex-wife's record at 66 if they want to wait to take their own at 70, when they can earn more money.

Sometimes people are worried that if an ex-spouse files, it will hurt the other spouse or their current husband or wife, Landis says. The answer is that it doesn't hurt anyone, and the other ex-spouse won't even know it's happening.

"Way back in the old days when I worked at Social Security, sometimes the husband would come in and ask if she was getting Social Security on his record, but you can't tell them because of the Privacy Act," Landis says. "Even if they want to know, they won't find out in official channels. It doesn't affect them in any way, and it doesn't affect them if they're currently married in any way. Don't sweat it. It's none of your business if she gets payments on your record or her own record or somebody else's record."

Landis speculates, however, that many people don't even know ex-spouse payments exists in the first place, which is a disadvantage for them if they want to earn more income or retire earlier.

Then again, not everyone wants to pursue it either.

Landis, who's 64, says he spoke to his ex-wife last year, and she asked him what she should do about enhancing her Social Security benefits. He says he told her to file on his at 66 and switch to her own benefits at 70 like he suggests others do.

"I told her there's a catch that you've got to be single, but she was planning a wedding," Landis says. "She said no way, I'm going to go ahead and get married."

Of course, now that's she's remarried, she can pursue a spousal benefit with her new husband once they've been married for at least a year. She can take his 50 percent benefit and switch to her own at 70.

It's not the most romantic notion, but there are some financial calculations that people need to keep in mind if they want to remarry, Landis says. If an ex-spouse has passed away, you can remarry and still get ex-spouse benefits, but only if you don't get remarried before the age of 60. So if you're considering remarrying and the wedding is planned just before your 60th birthday, it's best to wait.

"Keep the door open to those widow benefits," Landis says, "because they might be your highest payment route in the long run."

One pathway then is to start taking the widow payment at 60 and switch to your own benefit at 70 if it's going to be a raise, Landis says. If that is higher, take your own benefit at 62 and switch to the widow payment at 66 when it maximizes.

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