How will getting divorced affect my Social Security benefits?

Don't assume your new spouse will automatically be eligible for a spousal benefit on your record. Photo by Getty Images.

Economist Larry Kotlikoff answers your Social Security questions. Photo by Getty Images.

Editor’s Note: Boston University economist Larry Kotlikoff has spent every week, for over three years, answering questions about what is likely your largest financial asset — your Social Security benefits. His Social Security original 34 “secrets” and his Social Security gotchas have prompted so many of you to write in that we feature “Ask Larry” every Monday. Find a complete list of his columns here. And keep sending us your Social Security questions.


Pose Your Questions to Larry Here

Kotlikoff’s state-of-the-art retirement software is available here, for free, in its “basic” version. His new book, “Get What’s Yours — the Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security Benefits,” (co-authored with Paul Solman and Making Sen$e Medicare columnist Phil Moeller) was published in February before the changes from the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 went into effect.

Social Security expert Larry Kotlikoff has been keeping readers updated on how the budget act changes a number of Social Security rules. We’ll continue publishing updates on what this new law means for your Social Security benefits. Stay tuned.

Frannie: I have searched everywhere on the Internet for an answer to my question about spousal benefits and can’t find one. It is very simple. I’m hoping you might answer it for me.

If I file a restricted application at my full retirement age and start receiving spousal benefits at that time, and my husband and I then divorce (after 10 years of marriage), will I continue to receive spousal benefits? By full retirement age, my husband will have already begun receiving his full benefit, and because I was 63 last year, I am “grandfather in” and thus can file a restricted application. My plan is to let my own benefit grow until I retire at age 70.

Please, please could you let me know? I plan to work until age 70. I also plan to divorce my husband before I retire. Whether I divorce in a couple years or wait until I’m 66 and can claim spousal benefits depends on the answer to the above question.

I would really appreciate it if you could tell me. Thank you.

Larry Kotlikoff: Yes, as far as I know, if you get divorced in the future after 10 years of marriage, you will be able to collect divorced spousal benefits between full retirement age and 70 while letting your own retirement benefit continue to grow through age 70.

Lawrence: I am at full retirement age, but I’m still working. My wife is 61 and also working. I just got off the telephone with someone at the Social Security office. I requested to file and suspend my benefits, so that my wife could later file for spousal benefits as you recommend. The Social Security person indicated that I couldn’t do that unless my wife was ready to begin taking benefits. I tried to explain that I wanted to file and suspend before April in order to keep my options open, but she insisted that I could not do this. Who is right? What can I do now?

Larry Kotlikoff: The person you spoke with on the phone is wrong. You can file and suspend. However, when your wife files for her spousal benefit, she will be deemed to be filing for her retirement benefit, and she’ll just get the larger or the two benefits. So you won’t be able to pursue the file and suspend strategy under which at full retirement age, your wife files for just her spousal benefit and waits until 70 to collect her retirement benefit. The reason you can’t pursue this strategy is that your wife didn’t turn 62 before Jan. 2 of this year. So, to repeat, you can file and suspend, but it won’t buy you anything except lower widower benefits up through age 70 if your wife were to die before you reached age 70. Once you file, even if you suspend, your widower benefit will become your excess widower benefit, not your full widower benefit.

Linda: I am trying to assist my neighbor who is very much alive, but whom the Social Security Administration says is dead. One person at Social Security told him that a man in Mississippi who is now deceased had used his number and that is why Social Security Administration has declared my neighbor dead.

Sadly, my neighbor is 68 years old and wheelchair bound due to several brain surgeries. He cannot receive his benefits after 49 plus years of employment, nor can he get medical treatment and the medication he needs.

Do you know of a way to prove to Social Security that he is alive and that they gave his benefits to someone else? Any advice will be greatly appreciated.

Larry Kotlikoff: Let me check with my best source on this, Social Security technical expert Jerry Lutz.

Jerry Lutz: Unfortunately, I was never involved in handling these types of issues, so the best I can do is make some suggestions.

POMS GN 02408.700 doesn’t give many specifics, and the cross references are outdated. Basically, it just instructs the Social Security Administration office to investigate to determine if the beneficiary is actually alive and then to correct all of the various systems. I’m sure that they would want the person to come into the office with identifying documents, but it sounds like that would be difficult to impossible in this case.

The first step I would take is to call my local Social Security Administration office and ask them what is needed in order to resolve the problem. If her neighbor can’t visit an office in person, perhaps Linda could call the office on his behalf, ideally from her neighbor’s home so that he can authorize the Social Security Administration representative to release information to Linda.

If the error is not promptly corrected, my next step would be to contact the office(s) of a U.S. senator or congressman and explain the problem. Where I live, the congressional offices were very helpful and prompt in contacting Social Security Administration on behalf of constituents. This causes the case to be monitored by the management staff of the offices, and they pay very close attention to congressional interest cases. At least, that was my experience.

The Social Security Administration does have a process for expedited payments in dire need situations. It’s called the critical payment system, and it can be used to issue emergency checks to someone outside of the normal payment system. I don’t know what to advise regarding medical care and medications. It may take a while to correct the erroneous death in Medicare’s records. I would think that Linda’s neighbor’s doctor’s office would try to assist in this regard if they were made aware of the problem.

Maude: My head is spinning trying to understand Social Security retirement rules. I’m 63, and I will not collect until age 66. I think my case is easy. I’ve been married for 41 years, and my husband is six months older than me. We have been self-employed for 25 years.

I have a very small amount of Social Security benefits that I can collect at age 66 (maybe $400-$600), but my husband is close to the maximum amount. Can I claim my own Social Security at age 66 and then switch to my spousal benefits when my husband decides to start collecting his Social Security two to four years later?

I want to be able to collect half of his full retirement age Social Security amount, and I don’t want to mess that up in anyway. I would rather be safe then sorry. Unless you say the above will work, we will both start collecting when I turn 66, so his will grow a little bit before we claim.

Thanks for any insight you may be able to give me.

Larry Kotlikoff: Yes, you can collect your own retirement benefit and then take your excess spousal benefit when your husband takes his retirement benefit. My bet is that your best strategy is to take you own retirement benefit starting immediately, have your husband wait until 70 to collect his retirement benefit, and at that point, you would start collecting your excess spousal benefit. Furthermore, your husband can collect a full spousal benefit on your record once he has reached full retirement age.

Bill: For the last several years, my wife of 40 years and I have subscribed to your website:

Based on the calculations performed by your website, my wife (born February of 1949 and the lower income earner) and I (born in May of 1950) decided to take a “file and suspend” approach to our Social Security planning.

By accident, we’ve just come across your article, “Congress is pulling the rug out from people’s retirement decisions,” dated Nov. 1, 2015 on the PBS NewsHour website. If we’ve read the article correctly, we are of the understanding that “file and suspend” is no longer an option for us. I reach my full retirement age in May of 2016 and would file and suspend in May of 2016 — that is, one day short of the end of the “grandfather” period.

Am I reading this correctly? Do you have any recommendations? My wife and I were planning on using this additional income to “bridge the gap” until I am 70.

Larry Kotlikoff: There is a very good legal case (see here) that you could file and suspend, say on April 1, and still be grandfathered in to provide your wife full spousal benefits while she waits until 70 to collect her own retirement benefit. Or it may be optimal for your wife to file and suspend before April 30 and for you to take just your full spousal benefit between full retirement age and 70 while waiting until 70 to take your own retirement benefit. Yes, your full spousal will be smaller than your wife’s were you to do as you planned, but you’ll be getting a smaller number for more years. Hence, it may pay to take this alternative approach.

If you take the position that Avram Sacks did in my column the other week — namely that people are grandfathered in for four months beyond April 29 with respect to providing auxiliary benefits off of a suspended retirement benefit — you may need to push this with the Social Security authorities to the point of getting before a federal judge. You could well win!