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The Hidden Pitfalls of Collecting Social Security Benefits from Your Ex

Dec 08, 2014

Q. I have spoken with seven people at the Social Security Administration and gotten five different answers to my question. I want to draw Social Security from my ex-husband of 30 years at my present age, 62. I know that is not my full retirement age, and I would receive a reduced benefit. I also want to wait until full retirement age, 66, to draw from my Social Security benefit and receive it in full without reduction. Can I do this? —Sandra

A. This sounds like a sensible plan but unfortunately, when it comes to Social Security rules, logic doesn’t always carry the day. In this case, your plan conflicts with the agency’s so-called “deeming” rules, which apply to people who apply for spousal benefits—whether they are married or divorced—before they reach full retirement age.

Before we get to the problems with deeming, let’s quickly review the basics. If you were 66 and filed a divorce spousal claim, you would collect the highest possible spousal benefit—50% of the amount your ex-husband is entitled to at his full retirement age. It isn’t necessary for your ex to have filed for his own benefits at 66 for you to receive half of this amount. In fact, he doesn’t even need to have reached age 66. That’s just the reference point for determining spousal benefits.

Since you’re filing early, however, you won’t get half of his benefits. The percentages can be confusing, so here’s an example from the agency’s explanation of benefit reductions for early retirement. If your ex-husband’s benefit at full retirement age was $1,000 a month, your “full” divorce spousal payout at age 66 would be 50%, or $500. If you file at age 62, that amount will be reduced by 30% of $500, or $150. The payout you get, therefore, comes to $350 ($500 minus $150), or 35% of his benefit.

There are a few other rules for receiving divorce spousal benefits. You cannot be married to someone else. And if your former husband has not yet filed for his own Social Security retirement benefit, you must be divorced for at least two years to claim an ex-spousal benefit.

Now for the deeming pitfalls. If you meet these tests and file for a divorce spousal benefit before reaching full retirement age, Social Security deems you to be simultaneously filing for a reduced retirement benefit based on your own earnings record. The agency will look at the amount of each award and will pay you an amount that is equal to the greater of the two.

Since your spousal filing has also triggered a claim based on your own work history, you cannot then wait until full retirement age to file for your own benefits. In other words, your own retirement benefit will be reduced for the rest of your life. Logical or not, those are the rules.

There's no simple solution to the deeming problem, but you do have some choices. Figuring out the best option depends on many factors, including the levels of Social Security benefits that you and your ex-husband can receive, as well as your overall financial situation. Do you absolutely need to begin collecting some Social Security benefits at age 62, or can you afford to wait? You should also consider whether you’re in good health and how long you think you may live.

Your first choice is to do nothing until you turn 66, which is the full retirement age for someone who is now 62. Once you hit that milestone, deeming no longer applies. At that time, you could collect your unreduced divorce spousal benefit and suspend your own benefit for up to four years till age 70. Thanks to delayed retirement credits, your benefit will rise by 8% a year, plus the rate of inflation, each year between age 66 and 70. (Your spousal benefit remains the same, except for the inflation increase.) So, even if your divorce spousal benefit is greater than your retirement benefit at age 66, this may no longer be the case when you turn 70.

But if you need the money now, your best choice may be to file for reduced benefits. If your reduced divorce spousal benefit is higher than your own reduced retirement benefit, you have another option. At 66, you could suspend your own benefit and receive only your excess divorce spousal benefit—the amount by which your ex-spousal benefit exceeds your retirement benefit. It probably won’t be much. Still, suspending your benefit will allow it to rise until age 70, though it will be lower than you would have otherwise received because of early claiming. If these increases provide more income than your divorce spousal benefit, this move may be worth considering.

Variation of these choices include filing early at age 63, 64, or 65. You can also consider how delayed retirement credits would affect your decision if you filed at age 67, 68, or 69. In the end, you’ll need to do the math to compare the potential benefits of delaying vs. claiming now. Or you may want to get help from a financial adviser.

Philip Moeller is an expert on retirement, aging, and health. His book, “Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security,” will be published in February by Simon & Schuster. Reach him at moeller.philip@gmail.com or @PhilMoeller on Twitter.

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