In this week’s column, Phil Moeller, the author of Get What’s Yours for Medicare: Maximize Your Coverage, Minimize Your Costs and co-author of the updated edition of How to Get What’s Yours: The Revised Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security, addresses how you should handle your benefits while going through a divorce.

Got a question of your own about Medicare or Social Security? Send it to askphil@considerable.com.

How do I get my benefits back?

Question: My sister is 79. She has always had her Social Security benefit checks deposited to her husband’s account. Now that she is separated from him, she would like her benefit check sent to her directly. Her husband told her that years ago he opted for a larger amount each month and that the last Social Security check he had coming to him been received, and that there will be no more checks.

Is he blowing smoke or could he be telling her the truth? Thank you.

Michelle

Phil Moeller:

Dear Michelle: He is blowing smoke—very thick and misleading smoke!

Your sister’s benefits are hers— not her ex-husband’s. Once she claimed benefits (even if her ex- did this for her) they will last the rest of her life.

Your sister’s benefits are hers— not her ex-husband’s. Once she claimed benefits they will last the rest of her life.

She should call Social Security right away and instruct them to move her benefits into her own bank account. She should have documents proving her marriage.

While she’s at it, she also should ask Social Security how to explain whether she is receiving her own benefit or a spousal benefit based on her estranged husband’s earnings. I would be glad to help her figure out if he has been improperly withholding funds from her.

I hear from many readers that telling folks to get in touch with Social Security is not such a straightforward process, and one that often triggers doubts and more than a little anxiety about how to proceed. 

I think face-to-face meetings are the best, although many local Social Security offices are understaffed and have long backlogs. Here is a Social Security office locator tool to find the nearest office.

A valid email is required

If there is a long wait, she can call any office within driving distance and try to find one with shorter wait times. 

She also could just call Social Security at 1 (800) 772-1213. If she can’t resolve the matter on the phone, she then can schedule a meeting, and should ask the phone representative what information she should bring with her.

Lastly, she should be able to get an accurate idea of her benefit options by opening an online My Social Security account. It will show her the agency’s official record of her Social Security earnings and projected benefits.

Please let me know how things turn out. I know that many readers are rooting for your sister to “Get What’s Hers” (and for her ex- to get what’s coming to him as well, if you know what I mean)!

Michelle:

Thank you so much for your response. My sister did meet at her local Social Security office and was helped to apply for her own benefits. She did not understand that she had already been getting benefits on her husband’s retirement and that she just needed to have her check sent to her new address.

The letter she got from Social Security says she will be getting $600 a month based on her earnings. But her husband has been getting $2,400 a month. Did she just get screwed?

P.S.: My sister is still married to her husband, they just don’t live in the same place.

Phil:

I’m glad she is at least getting the $600 deposited in her bank account. As to whether this is a fair benefit, her My Social Security account should give her a good idea.

Most likely, her husband made more money than her and therefore is entitled to a larger benefit. It’s not clear whether her $600 is her own benefit or a spousal benefit. This should be explained in the letter she got. 

If she needs help in understanding the letter or anything else about her benefits, please let me know.

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