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Rules for collecting Social Security on an ex-spouse’s earnings

I’m a 66-year-old divorced woman. I’m currently collecting half my ex-husband’s Social Security and deferring my own until age 70. At age 70, can I elect to take his full Social Security benefit instead of my smaller one?

Not if he’s still alive. But after his death, you can switch from your smaller benefit to his bigger one.

Many divorced people don’t realize they may be eligible to collect a Social Security benefit based on a former spouse’s earnings record, both during his or her lifetime and after his or her death. To qualify, a person must meet four requirements:

1) Your marriage lasted at least 10 years

2) You haven’t remarried

3) You and your former spouse are both at least 62 years old

4) Your benefit based on your ex’s earnings is bigger than your benefit based on your own record. You can receive only the larger of the two amounts, not both.

The maximum benefit you can receive during your ex’s lifetime is 50 percent of his or her full benefit (i.e., the amount your ex is entitled to receive at full retirement age). The maximum survivor benefit is 100 percent of the amount your ex was entitled to receive (or was collecting) at the time of death.

But you can’t receive those maximum amounts unless you wait until your own full retirement age to file for Social Security. If you apply when you’re younger, all your benefits are permanently reduced. Finally, only people who a) apply at their full retirement age and b) were born before 1954 are allowed to postpone their own Social Security benefit while collecting a benefit based on a living ex-spouse’s earnings.

THE BOTTOM LINE Some divorced people qualify for Social Security based on their former spouse’s earnings.


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