Tom Margenau

All of today’s questions come from, or are about, women who are divorced. So let me make this general point first. The law says a divorced woman, who was married to her ex-husband for a minimum of 10 years, is due essentially the same benefits as a woman who is currently married to her husband.

In a nutshell, that means a divorced woman can get between one-third and one-half of her ex-husband’s Social Security (depending on her age) while he is alive and between 70 percent and 100 percent of his Social Security (depending on her age) after he dies.

And those benefits are NOT in addition to her own Social Security. Instead, they are offset by her own Social Security. In other words, she’d get her own Social Security retirement benefit first, and then she’d get the difference between her wife’s or widow’s rate and her own rate added to her retirement benefit.

Q. I was married to my ex-husband for 32 years before we divorced. I understand I would be due benefits on his record if they exceed what I am due on my own. But what I don’t understand is why a woman who was married to a guy for only 10 years would get essentially the same benefit rate. Shouldn’t the benefits to ex-wives be prorated depending on the length of the marriage?

A. First, let me verify that you are correct. A woman who was married to her husband for 10 years (and 10 years is the minimum duration-of-marriage requirement) would get the same benefit rate as a woman who was married to her husband for a very long time.

Now let’s think about the prorated formula you proposed. I guess part of the reason it isn’t done is because it would be an administrative and mathematical nightmare. And then, would you ever stop prorating? I mean, I could picture myself getting a follow-up email from a woman who was married to her husband for 45 years before divorcing saying: “I sure as heck better get more money than that woman who wrote to you who was only married for 32 years!”

Actually, the law used to say that a woman had to be married to a man for 20 years before she could get benefits on his Social Security record. It was lowered to 10 years about four decades ago.

Q. I was married to my ex for 36 years before we divorced. I never remarried. But he did. We are both 62 years old. I was a stay-at-home mom when we were married. I have been working since our divorce at our local Walmart, but I don’t make very much money. So I am due a very low Social Security retirement check.

I am sure I am due much more on his account. But the problem is, I don’t think he will ever sign up for Social Security. He and his new wife are both making big bucks and living the good life. I am tired and want to quit, but I can’t afford to live on just my Social Security check. Is there anything I can do?

A. Yes, there is something you can do. You can quit your job and sign up for Social Security tomorrow, on both your own account and your ex-husband’s record. Although the law says a currently married woman can’t get any benefits on her husband’s record until he retires, the rules are different for divorced women. He does NOT have to be retired and getting his Social Security checks before you can claim benefits on his account. He merely has to be old enough to be eligible for benefits. You said he is 62. And that’s old enough.

To get benefits on his record, you’ll need a copy of your marriage record and divorce papers. Whatever you get on his record won’t take a nickel away from his own retirement benefits or from whatever benefits his new wife might be due on his account.

Q. My 67-year-old mother was married to my father for 30 years before they got a divorce. About 9 years ago, she married a second man. That second husband died last year, and she is getting widow’s benefits from his Social Security.

But now my father has died. My dad made a lot more money than the second husband, and I’m sure his Social Security benefit is much higher. Can my mother switch to my dad’s Social Security? Or does the fact that she remarried mess her up?

A. Your mom should immediately file for widow’s benefits on your dad’s Social Security record. Normally, if a divorced woman remarries, that ends her eligibility for her first husband’s Social Security — as long as she remains married. But that second marriage ended when husband No. 2 died. So your mom is now free and clear to apply for divorced widow’s benefits on your dad’s Social Security account.

And just so you understand: Your mom will not get widow’s benefits from both husbands. Once her higher widow’s check from your father kicks in, her widow’s benefits from husband No. 2 will stop.