Could you be getting a bigger check each month?
Social Security Benefits If You've Been Married More Than Once
by Gary Foreman
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You want to get the Social Security benefits you're entitled to, but knowing what you're owed is confusing. And, to complicate it, you've been married more than once. How can you tell if you're getting the Social Security benefits you deserve?
To help us answer that and other questions, we contacted Devin Carroll. Mr. Carroll is a partner and Chief Compliance Officer for Cogent Advisory Group and has practiced as a financial advisor in Texarkana, TX since 2003. He is also the founder of the popular blog Social Security Intelligence at SocialSecurityIntelligence.com.
Q. You advise that people check their Social Security benefit. What should they look for?
Mr. Carroll: The number one thing to check is the earnings history. We have seen countless statements with a $0 recorded where earnings were made. Since the Social Security Administration calculates benefits based on the highest 35 years, a $0 can have a big impact on benefit amounts. It's not always a $0, so they need to look for lower than reported earnings as well.
Q. What responsibility do the people who work at the Social Security Administration have to help you maximize your benefit?
Mr. Carroll: NONE! It is very clear. The Social Security Administration will not give advice. They only give information. This infuriates some, but it shouldn't. While the Social Security Administration may understand their rules and filing options, they do not know enough about your own personal situation to make a recommendation. The filing decision is complex. There are no rules of thumb or one-sized answers. At a minimum, each individual has eight personal factors that must be coordinated with the very complicated filing rules to achieve the three to four filing scenarios that will work for them.
When people express frustration at the Administration for their reluctance to offer advice, I often point them to this fictional analogy. The IRS has started offering a new service where you could just simply drop off your W2s, 1099s, and all of your receipts. You go home to wait and they'll give you a call to let you know what you owe. Sound like a good deal? I haven't met anyone yet who is a fan of that idea, but that is essentially what people do every day with the Social Security Administration.
Q. Often people who have been married more than once don't make the most of their spousal benefit. Why is that?
Mr. Carroll: Most individuals are simply not aware of their options. It may take a little digging, but the difference in benefit amounts could be a lifestyle change! In 2008, the Office of the Inspector General found that 13,580 spouses were eligible for $123.7 million in higher retirement benefits after they reached age 70. That's huge! Find the report here.
Q. How can you tell if you're eligible for benefits on a prior spouse's work record?
Mr. Carroll: There are three tests to meet in determining your own eligibility.
1. You must be at the proper age. The earliest filing age is:
- Age 62 for either spousal benefits or your own benefits
- Age 60 for survivor benefits (Age 50 if disabled)
2. You must not be currently married (one exception below)
3. You must have met the length of marriage rules
The first and second tests are easy. In fact, most readers have probably already decided if they pass these or not. It's that third test that can be confusing. Fortunately, the length of marriage rules are pretty easy to understand. They are as follows:
Divorced Spouse - 10 years
Deceased Spouse - 9 months (as long as you were married at the time of death)
The blend of these two (and one of the most often missed benefits) is what happens when an ex-spouse dies? As long as you are not currently married, you would be entitled to a survivor benefit. Because the survivor benefit is the full amount of the ex-spouse's benefit, it can often be higher than the benefit an individual is currently drawing.
I'm often asked, "What about if you have been married multiple times? Can you pick and choose your benefit? The answer is YES if you are not currently married (see exception). Another question is, "Will my ex-spouse know?" The answer is NO!
Here is the exception that I keep talking about. If you re-marry after age 60, you are still entitled to a survivor benefit from a prior spouse.
Q. How do you claim the additional benefits?
Mr. Carroll: First, don't expect the Social Security Administration to look at all of your prior marriages and make a determination about which eligible benefit is best for you. They make it pretty clear that proving that there are eligible benefits from prior marriages is the responsibility of the claimant. Unless individuals know the rules, it's pretty easy (and common!) to miss benefits from a prior marriage. Adding to this is that once you are divorced, the Social Security Administration stops sharing information about your ex-spouse's benefit amount with you. That's great for privacy but bad for obtaining information and planning. However, if you ask them specific questions, they will answer.
Q. Can you recover any past benefits that you didn't know about?
Mr. Carroll: The short answer is "no." The only exception is for up to 6 months of retroactive benefits if you file after your full retirement age.
Maximizing your Social Security benefits isn't easy for any of us. But if you've been married more than once, it's an especially difficult challenge. And you'll probably need to contact a professional to help you be sure you're getting the check that you deserve.
Reviewed April 2017
Gary Foreman is a former financial planner and purchasing manager who founded The Dollar Stretcher.com website and newsletters in 1996. He's been featured in MSN Money, Yahoo Finance, Fox Business, The Nightly Business Report, US News Money, Credit.com and CreditCards.com. Gary shares his philosophy of money here. You can follow Gary on Twitter. Gary is also available for audio, video or print interviews. For more info see his media page.
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