Columnist Phil Moeller’s recent forays into Social Security spousal benefits—and in particular benefits for divorcees—generated a flurry of follow-up questions from readers. That’s no surprise given that you can base your Social Security on your own work history, your spouse’s, or an ex-spouse’s, and your best strategy isn’t always obvious.

In this week’s column, 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, answers half of dozen of those queries and adds more information that many spouses (primarily women) need to know.

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

Making the most of a divorce

Rosemarie H.: Do I have to wait until my ex dies to claim partial benefits from his Social Security? We were married 24 years, divorced in 1997.

Phil Moeller: I will bite my tongue a bit and not venture into whether you might wish your ex to no longer be with us! But the answer is “No.” Assuming you are at least 62, you are eligible to file; your benefits will reach their maximum if you wait until your full retirement age to do so.

Shelley: I am divorced but my ex- remarried. Would I be able to claim his benefit even though he is remarried?

Phil Moeller: Yes. His marital status has no impact on your eligibility to file for an ex-spousal benefit based on his earnings.

Susan B: My ex-husband is 62 and has been on disability for two years. We were married for 20 years. Will I be able to collect half of his disability benefits and, if so, at what age? 

Phil Moeller: Yes, but you will need to wait until your full retirement age to claim. Benefits are reduced if taken sooner.

How long do I have to be married?

Max A.: My long-time partner has not paid into Social Security enough to file for benefits. I am considering marriage so he can collect off my Social Security. 

My question is: Is there a time limit on marriage to collect spousal benefits?

Phil Moeller: You must be married for a year to be eligible for a spousal benefit. Not that you asked, but people must be married at least nine months before they are eligible to claim a survivor benefit

A second chance to claim?

Joyce G.: I didn’t realize I could have continued working and still collected my late husband’s Social Security. He passed away in 1995, and I didn’t start taking a survivor benefit until I was laid off in 2009. I began by getting his and later switched to my own because it was more.

As my income is very limited, I was wondering if I could go back and get any of the years that I could have gotten? 

Phil Moeller: These are among the saddest questions I receive. Social Security limits retroactive awards to no more than six months’ of foregone benefits. I’m so sorry. Situations like this are why I have written books on Social Security and Medicare and have been answering reader questions since 2014.

How small is too small?

Lynda P.: When my husband was first eligible for Social Security, we made an appointment here in Florida with the Social Security administration to ask if I could receive half [of his benefits] per month.

The Social Security representative who told you this should be taken out to the nearest woodshed.

The answer was no because “it is such a small amount it would not be worth it.”  That does not seem right to us! What do you think?

Phil Moeller: I think the Social Security representative who told you this should be taken out to the nearest woodshed. If he or she was ever eligible for overtime pay, it should be withheld on the grounds that “it is such a small amount it would not be worth it.”

By law, Social Security must pay the benefits you are owed. This is not charity but an earned right that has been paid for.

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