Q: I worked alongside my husband in our own business. I took very small wages ($12,000 annually) and he took around $100,000 annually. Fifteen years ago, he fell in love with a 25 year-old and left our family.
I started collecting my Social Security benefit when I turned 65, and it is indeed very small.
When I speak with Social Security, they say they can’t tell me what my ex’s Social Security is for privacy purposes. I have been reading all of your options but not knowing if he is already collecting Social Security and if so, how much, I cannot make a decision which direction to go for my own Social Security. I really need an idea who could give me the information that I need. -- KM, via email
A: The Social Security Administration has the relevant information, and they will give it to you.
You may be entitled to a bigger benefit check. But you don't have any options to consider or decisions to make. The reason is that you're already collecting Social Security. Social Security options are only available to people who have reached their full retirement age and haven't yet filed for their benefits.
You've left out the two most important pieces of information, which are your ex-husband’s current age, and how long you were married. The fact that he remarried – I'm assuming he and that 25 year-old tied the knot – is irrelevant. Whether or not he is currently collecting Social Security is also irrelevant.
If your marriage lasted for at least ten years and you haven’t remarried, you are entitled to a spousal benefit based on his work record.
If you were still married to him, you couldn’t collect your spousal benefit until your husband had filed for Social Security. But the rule is different for people who are divorced. As a divorced person, you’re eligible as soon as your ex is old enough to collect Social Security -- even if he hasn’t filed for it – as long as you’re at least 62 years old, you haven’t remarried, and your own benefit is smaller than your spousal benefit.
For example, if you meet the other tests but your own benefit is $1,000 a month and your spousal benefit is $900 a month, you won’t receive any spousal benefit. The maximum you can receive is whichever amount is greater – your own benefit or your spousal benefit.
Assuming your ex was at least 62 years old when you applied for Social Security, you were eligible for both your own benefit and a spousal benefit based on his record. You should therefore now be collecting the greater of those two amounts.
If your current benefit check doesn't reflect your spousal entitlement, it may be because you didn’t mention your ex to Social Security when you applied for your benefit. Or perhaps he was still under 62 at that time. Or -- less likely, but still possible -- you dealt with a Social Security representative who didn't know the rules. If any of those things happened, you may be getting a smaller amount than you’re entitled to receive.
Make an appointment at your local Social Security office to discuss this situation. A face to face meeting is much better than a phone conversation. Take along a copy of your marriage certificate and a copy of your divorce decree. It’s useful to have your ex’s Social Security number (which you’ll find on copies of your old tax returns), but it’s not essential. The Social Security Administration can retrieve it.
They can tell you what your spousal benefit is, and whether that benefit is reflected in your current check. If not, you're entitled to have your benefit adjusted.
Two last thoughts:
Even if you never got a divorce and he hasn't yet filed for Social Security, you're entitled to know what your spousal benefit will be when he does file, and whether or not it will increase the size of your monthly check.
And whether or not you ever got divorced, when this guy dies -- again, assuming your marriage lasted at least 10 years and you haven't remarried -- you can collect 100% of his Social Security benefit as his widow. That's true no matter how many young women he may have married since he left you.
Please send your questions to Lynn@LynnBrennersFamilyFinance.com. I'm sorry I can't respond personally to every email. Questions are only addressed online.
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