If you were married for ten years or longer, and are single when you reach retirement age, you will be eligible to collect Social Security benefits based on your ex-spouse’s earnings record. Those “derivative benefits” are equal to one-half the amount your former spouse is eligible to collect, even though he earned those benefits over his entire career, including the years after your marriage was dissolved. You can collect derivative benefits even if he remarries, as long as they don’t exceed the benefits you receive on your own earnings. If you have been married nearly ten years, you might want to delay finalizing the divorce until after the ten-year mark. To help explain these complicated rules, let’s follow the story of Ted, Susie, Cathy, and Frank.
Ted and Susie were married for 14 years. They are now getting divorced. Ted is entitled at age 66 to receive $750 per month in Social Security, based on his earnings. Susie is entitled at age 66 to receive $250 per month in Social Security, based on her earnings.
Based on Ted’s earnings, Susie will be eligible to receive a derivative benefit of $375 a month, half of his benefit. Ted will get his full benefit. If Ted later marries Cathy, and they divorce after 10 years, Cathy would also be entitled to receive $375 per month based on Ted’s earnings. No matter how many women he marries, Ted still gets his $750 per month.
If Susie marries Frank, she can collect spousal benefits based on his earnings history, instead of collecting on Ted’s earnings. If Susie divorces Frank after 10 years or longer, she can collect based on the earning histories of either Ted or Frank or her own account, whichever is higher.
If Ted dies before Susie marries Frank, she will be entitled to widow’s benefits at age 66, which approximate his full Social Security benefit. She can collect 71.5% if she wants to receive benefits at age 60. She’ll continue getting those benefits even if she marries Frank, as long as she doesn’t remarry before 60. And Cathy, Ted’s real widow, will also receive widow’s benefits.
Now you know the real reason they say the Social Security system is going to go bankrupt!
As a nationally recognized expert on money, Ginita Wall is is the author of eight personal-finance books, including It’s More Than Money, It’s Your Life! The New Money Club for Women. Ginita lectures frequently and has appeared in numerous financial publications, websites, and television shows. A San Diego CPA (Certified Public Accountant), CDS, and CFP® practitioner specializing in divorce, she’s the co-founder of the Women’s Institute for Financial Education (www.WIFE.org). She can be reached at (858) 792-0524. View her website online.
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