When it comes to Social Security, you may have several ways to collect the biggest benefit possible, including basing it on your own work record, using your spouse’s earnings history if you’re married, or claiming a spousal benefit tied to your ex-husband or wife.

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, walks a reader through this tricky trade-off.

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

When can I claim my ex-husband’s Social Security?

Dana F.: I read your column on Considerable.com and hope you can answer my question. Currently I am 61 years old. I was married for more than two decades and am now divorced. 

I had planned to wait until age 70 to claim Social Security so that I would get the largest possible benefit (about $2,600). Then I learned that I could claim through my ex-husband, who was six years older than me, worked longer, and earned much more than I did.

Here’s my question: Do I have to wait until age 70 in order to claim my ex-husband’s Social Security? Or could I file early, at either 62 or my full retirement age (66.5), and still get his full benefit? I don’t know what it will be but he paid in more than I ever did so I’m pretty sure it will be higher than $2,600.

Phil Moeller: Your question highlights an important claiming decision that many divorced women face, so let’s walk through it carefully. A mine field can be easier to navigate than Social Security’s rules!

To qualify for a divorced spousal benefit from Social Security, a woman (or man, for that matter) must have been married for at least 10 years prior to getting divorced. You must be 62—the earliest age that non-disabled folks can file for benefits. You also must be single or, if you have remarried, you must have done so after turning 60. 

Lastly, your ex-spouse must already have filed for his or her own Social Security retirement benefit or, if he hasn’t yet filed, he needs to be at least 62 and the couple needs to have been divorced for at least two years. (By now, you can see that my comment about navigating a mine field was no exaggeration!)

Your question highlights an important claiming decision that many divorced women face.

It’s not clear from your note whether your ex-husband has filed for Social Security and whether you’ve been divorced for more than two years. Assuming either of these conditions has been met, here is how you should decide what to do.

In the “good old days,” it was possible to file for one kind of Social Security benefit while suspending another one until it had reached its maximum level. This “file and suspend” strategy was outlawed by Congress in late 2015. 

Some folks were grandfathered under the law and could still use this strategy. But the age cutoff to qualify under those provisions was a birth date on or before Jan. 2, 1954. You are too young to qualify, making this one of the few situations in which it pays to be older! 

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What this means is that if you file for either an ex-spousal or your own retirement benefit, you will be “deemed” under Social Security rules to be filing for both benefits. Social Security will compare the two benefits and approve a payment equal to whichever is greater.

Your ex-spousal benefit will be a maximum of half of what your ex-husband’s Social Security benefit would have been at his own full retirement age (FRA). This is true regardless of when he actually filed for Social Security or even if he has not yet filed. It will not reach this maximum unless you wait until your own full retirement age of 66 and a half to file. 

Social Security staffers are often overwhelmed by customer demand, so you need to be patient and persistent.

While your ex-spouse may have earned a lot more money than you have, it’s not clear that half of his FRA benefit would be more than your own age-70 retirement benefit.

If you don’t know what your ex-husband’s benefit entitlements look like, you should contact Social Security to get this information. Social Security staffers are often overwhelmed by customer demand, so you need to be patient and persistent. 

Wondering how much you might receive in Social Security?

Use our simple calculator to see your projected monthly benefits

If it turns out that your ex-spousal benefit at 66 and a half is greater than your own retirement benefit at 70, then you should wait until 66 and a half to file for the ex-spousal benefit. Filing sooner would result in potentially large benefit reductions that you should avoid.

If your age 70-benefit is noticeably higher than your FRA ex-spousal benefit, then you should wait until 70 to file for your own retirement benefit. 

There is a third possibility. If your age-70 benefit is only slightly more than your FRA ex-spousal benefit, you might want to consider filing for the ex-spousal benefit when you’re 66 and a half. This would provide you with ex-spousal benefits for three and a half years before you turn 70, and this might be your most more attractive claiming strategy.

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