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Divorced Women Surveyed About Social Security

By Tom Margenau- I’ve written many columns in the past with messages targeted to divorced women. And I thought I had everything covered.

But I got a fascinating email recently from a reader who surveyed women in her area and had some interesting insights as to why those who are divorced were not familiar with the Social Security benefits they might be due from an ex.

Or, more intriguing, why they didn’t want to file for such benefits even though they knew they existed. So here is a summary of her findings, with my comments.

One: Many women were not familiar with their potential benefits as ex-spouses.
If you were married to a man for at least 10 years before getting divorced, and if you are not currently married and not due higher benefits on your own Social Security record, there is a good chance you are due Social Security benefits on your ex-husband’s record.

You can get those benefits beginning at age 62 if your ex is still alive, and as early as age 60 if your ex is deceased.
However, those benefits might not be payable if you are under your full retirement age (currently age 66) and working.

There is an earning penalty that applies to all Social Security beneficiaries under full retirement age, whether they are getting benefits as a retiree or as a spouse or widow of a retiree. In a nutshell, the law says that if you are making over $17,640 per year, one dollar in benefits is held back for every two dollars you exceed that threshold. That threshold eases up a bit in the year you turn full retirement age and completely goes away once you reach that magic age.

Two: Many women thought that if they filed as a divorced spouse, it would take benefits away from their exes.
This isn’t true. Anything paid to a divorced spouse doesn’t take a nickel away from her ex’s Social Security checks.
Three: Some women believe that if they get benefits as a divorced spouse, it could reduce payments due to their ex-husbands’ current spouses.

Nope. That won’t happen. Any money paid to an ex-spouse is essentially just an add-on benefit. It doesn’t take anything away from her ex-husband’s current spouse.

Four: A few women said their divorce decree included a clause that nullified their eligibility for benefits on their ex-husbands’ Social Security accounts.

This is one I’ve heard from many women in the past. Usually, the husband insists on adding a line or two to the divorce papers that essentially says, “My wife cannot make a claim against my Social Security benefits.” The soon-to-be ex-wife signs the papers because, at the time, Social Security is the furthest thing from her mind.

But as she gets older, she thinks she made a big mistake. But she didn’t. That Social Security exclusion clause isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. It has no legal standing. Federal law always trumps anything a lawyer might scribble into a divorce decree.

Five: Some women thought they needed permission from their exes to get their Social Security.
This is a concern I never considered. No permission is necessary. If you meet the eligibility criteria for divorced spouse benefits, federal law says you are due those benefits. Your ex-husband has no say in the matter and his permission isn’t necessary.

Six: Some women were afraid their ex-husbands would harm them after discovering they were getting benefits on their accounts.

This is another issue I never thought about. As indicated above, not only is the ex-husband’s permission not necessary, it is likely he will never even know you are getting benefits on his record — unless you tell him. The Social Security Administration will not notify him of your claim for divorced wife’s benefits.
Seven: Some women thought that their portion of their exes’ Social Security was based only on the earnings they made while they were married.

Any benefits paid to a wife (whether married or divorced) are based on the husband’s entire work history.
Eight: Some women didn’t realize that things can change after their exes die.

There are many working women who aren’t due anything from an ex-husband while he is alive because their own Social Security benefits exceed the roughly 35% to 50% spousal rate. But after the ex dies, the widow’s rate can be as high as 100%. So, many women who don’t qualify for spousal benefits from a living ex can get widow’s benefits once the guy passes away.

So, to summarize: If you are a divorced woman, you will get benefits on your ex-husband’s Social Security account if you meet all of the following requirements:
— Were married at least 10 years.
— Are currently unmarried.
— Are 62 or older (if your ex is alive).
— Are 60 or older (if your ex is dead).
— Are not working or are working part time if under full retirement age.
— Are not due higher benefits on your own Social Security record.
One final note: These same rules apply to divorced men. But men rarely get benefits on an ex-wife’s account because their own retirement checks almost always exceed what they could possibly get in spousal benefits.

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