Carrie Schwab Pomerantz

Dear Carrie: I'm divorced. I've heard that I might still be entitled to a Social Security benefit from my ex. How does that work? -- A Reader

Dear Reader: What you heard is correct. Even though you're divorced, it's still possible to collect benefits on an ex-spouse's Social Security record. However, the operative word here is possible because there are definite qualifications you must meet in order to do so. The basic qualifications are pretty straightforward, but there are a few permutations you'll need to be aware of to determine if and when collecting spousal benefits on your ex is the right move for you.

The Basics

The first determination is the length of your marriage. You're entitled to collect on your ex's Social Security record if you were married for at least 10 years. Interestingly, it doesn't matter if he or she has remarried -- you're still in the picture benefits-wise.

For you, however, remarriage is an issue. In order to collect a divorced-spouse benefit, you must be unmarried. If you did remarry, that marriage must have ended by divorce, death or annulment. (You could then choose to collect on either spouse, whichever benefit is higher, but you can't collect on both.) Finally, you must be at least 62 years old.

It's also interesting to note that what you collect on your ex-spouse's earnings record won't have any effect on what your ex or his or her current spouse can collect.

That may all sound simple enough. But there's still more to think about.

Timing Considerations

If you meet the basic qualifications and  the Social Security benefits you'd receive on your own earnings are less than the spousal benefit, it would make sense to file based on your ex's record. Even if he or she hasn't yet applied for Social Security but is eligible for it, you can still take benefits as long as you've been divorced for at least two years.

However, in terms of determining the best time for you to take this benefit, there are a couple of things to consider. A spousal benefit, whether you're married or divorced, is only 50 percent of the spouse's full benefit.

If you decide to take it at age 62 rather than wait until your full retirement age (66 for those born between 1943 and 1954), your 50 percent benefit will be permanently reduced by another 25 percent. Depending on your current financial situation, it might make more economic sense to wait.


Carrie Schwab Pomerantz

Carrie Schwab Pomerantz is a Motley Fool contributor.

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