Just two weeks ago, I wrote a column answering questions from divorced women. Obviously, I left a lot of questions unanswered because my email inbox has been flooded with inquiries about Social Security benefits for divorcees.
Q: I am about to turn 70. When I was 66, I filed for wife’s benefits on my ex-husband’s Social Security record. Someone told me that I must sign up for my own Social Security when I reach 70. This can’t be right. I am getting $1,270 on my husband’s account. I worked just barely over 10 years early in my life and the last time I checked, my own Social Security check was about $110. Why should I sign up for my own Social Security when it is so much less?
A: My hunch is you are already getting your own retirement benefits and don’t know it. When you were 66 and thought you were applying for just divorced wife’s benefits, I will bet they actually had you file for both your own and your husband’s Social Security benefits. The rules generally say that you must apply for your own benefits first and then at the same time, file for any spousal benefits you are due. In other words, I think you are getting $110 from your own Social Security account and then another $1,160 off your husband’s record to take you up to the $1,270 rate you are getting. You can check this out by looking at your Medicare card. If it has your Social Security number on it followed by the letter “A,” that means you are getting Social Security retirement benefits.
If your Medicare card has your husband’s number with the code “B6” behind it, that means you are getting just divorced wife’s benefits. And if for some strange reason you are getting just spousal benefits, there is no need for you to file for your own Social Security at age 70.
Q: My ex-wife wants me to give her my Social Security number so that she can file for spousal benefits on my record. Do I have to do this?
A: There is no law that requires you to tell your ex what your Social Security number is. But why not be a nice guy and give it to her? I suggest that for two reasons. First, even if you don’t give it to her, the Social Security people are going to be able to find it in their records. And second, if she does qualify for benefits, it doesn’t take a nickel away from your Social Security checks. And if you remarried, it doesn’t take any money away from what your current wife might be due. Or to put that another way, benefits paid to ex-spouses are just add-on benefits.
Q: I am about to turn 66, and I did something stupid 29 years ago that may really have messed me up now that I’m older. That’s when I got a divorce from my ex-husband.
He was a rich man and hired the best lawyer money could buy. They added a clause to the divorce decree that essentially said I could never claim any benefits off my husband’s Social Security account. I was 37 at the time, and Social Security was the furthest thing from my mind. And I don’t want to go into too many of the messy details, but my husband was a philandering and abusive fool, and I just wanted to get rid of him.
So I signed the papers. Now that I’m 66, I want to apply for Social Security while I keep working. My own benefit is about $1,450. I don’t know what he is getting, but he always had a six-figure income, so I’m sure he is getting a very high Social Security check. He is 72 years old. He is married to his fourth wife. Is there anything I can do?
A: I’ve got several bits of good news for you. The first is that the clause in the divorce decree barring you from collecting your husband’s Social Security is about as worthless as the paper it’s printed on. Federal law says that you are due divorced wife’s benefits, and nothing a lawyer (even “the best lawyer money could buy”) scribbles into your divorce decree can override that.
The second bit of good news is that you are going to be able to pull off a benefit maximizing trick I’ve discussed many times in this column. At age 66, you should file for divorced wife’s benefits. Let’s say he is getting something near the maximum Social Security rate — about $2,700. So your share of that would be $1,350. Tell the Social Security clerk you want to “restrict the scope of your application” to wife’s benefits only. You’ll start getting the $1,350 per month. And then at age 70, you can switch to 132 percent of your own retirement benefits. Sounds like that will be a little over $1,900 monthly.
And then there is a third bit of potential good news. I suppose we don’t really want to wish that “philandering and abusive fool” any ill will, but if he were to get hit by a bus, you hit the jackpot. Or to put that a bit more delicately, when he dies, you will start getting $2,700 per month in divorced widow’s benefits.
Q: You said a woman must be married 10 years to qualify for benefits as a divorced wife off her ex-husband’s account. I got married June 28, 1989, and got divorced June 22, 1999. Does that count as 10 years? Or am I six days short?
A: Darn! The law says your marriage must reach its 10th anniversary to meet the eligibility requirement for divorced wife’s benefits. So you do come up six days short of that mark.
Over the years, I’ve heard from hundreds of women just like you. I totally understand that when you are going through the trials and tribulations of a divorce, especially when you are younger, Social Security is the furthest thing from your mind. But let this be a warning to those of you whose marriage is on the rocks. If you are anywhere near the 10-year mark when you start talking to lawyers, just stretch things out as long as you can to make sure you pass that 10th anniversary.