Ex-husband asks about Social Security benefits after ex-wife dies

Q: My ex-wife died, and I have no idea how much her Social Security benefit was. I am remarried and on Social Security. If my ex-wife’s benefit was more than mine, am I eligible for a survivors benefit based on her benefit? If so, how do I go about receiving it? — Louis Horens, Tennessee

A: Assuming you remarried after age 60, were married at least 10 years to your ex-wife, and your ex-wife’s benefit is more than the greater of your own and 50% of your current spouse’s full retirement age benefit, you would be eligible for surviving divorced spouse benefits, says Joe Elsasser, a certified financial planner with Sequent Planning.

You would need proof of marriage and divorce to establish the 10-year marriage.

“Your best first step would be to visit your local Social Security office with the documentation of your marriage and divorce and your ex-wife’s Social Security number,” says Elsasser.

Q: I turned 62 in May of 2016. My wife is 68; she’ll be 69 in December. She has been taking full Social Security since 66. Her benefit is currently $2,325. My Social Security benefit would be $1,675 if I take it in November. If I wait until age 66, it will be $2,172.

My question: If my wife predeceases me, will I collect her full benefit at any time? Do I have to be collecting if she predeceases me? Do I have to wait till I am 66? If I predecease her, can she at 70 collect my delayed retirement benefit if I did not start? — Steve McLynn, New York

A: First, a bit of history. The Bipartisan Budget Act signed into law on Nov. 2, 2015, affected everyone except widows and widowers. And here’s what it means with respect to your question, according to Kathleen Sindell, author of Social Security: Maximize Your Benefits.

1. A surviving spouse still has the flexibility to choose whether to begin benefits as early as age 60 or as late as FRA (at age 66).

2. Additionally, a widow(er) can choose whether to start benefits as early as age 62 or as late as age 70.

“In both cases, starting earlier than FRA reduces benefits, and delaying increases benefits,” says Sindell.

That said, you can maximize benefits by changing the claiming sequence.

One, collect now, survivor later. “If the surviving spouse had a significantly lower earned benefit than the decedent, he or she should collect the earned benefits at age 62,” says Sindell. “Once full retirement age, or FRA, the widow(er) can switch to the survivor benefit.”

Two, survivor now, collect later. “If a couple had similar records, it makes sense for the widow(er) to take the survivor benefits as early as possible, at age 60,” says Sindell. “His or her own earned benefit will continue to grow until age 70. At 70, the widow(er) will switch to his or her earned benefit.”

Of note: If widower(er)s wait until 60 or later they can remarry and claim ex-spouse survivor benefits, says Sindell.

Robert Powell is editor of Retirement Weekly, contributes regularly to USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal and MarketWatch. Got questions about money? Email rpowell@allthingsretirement.com.


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