Ask Larry: How Do I Get More Social Security from My Ex?

BY Paul Solman  December 3, 2012 at 3:21 PM EDT


Outliving your ex-spouse is one way to get a larger Social Security payment. Photo by Noah Clayton via Getty Images.

Larry Kotlikoff’s Social Security original 34 “secrets”, his additional secrets, his Social Security “mistakes” and his Social Security gotchas have prompted so many of you to write in that we now feature “Ask Larry” every Monday. We are determined to continue it until the queries stop or we run through the particular problems of all 78 million Baby Boomers, whichever comes first. Kotlikoff’s state-of-the-art retirement software is available here, for free, in its “basic” version


Jim: Can a 62-year-old draw a spousal Social Security benefit from her 70-year-old husband’s Social Security account and still work and earn as much as she wants?

Larry: No, not immediately. There is an earnings test that will reduce your spousal and retirement benefit if you earn enough money. But the loss of benefits due to the earnings test is paid back to you when you reach full retirement age in the form of a permanently larger benefit, so don’t worry about the earnings test unless you know for sure you will die at a young age.

You will, however, be forced to take your retirement benefit early if take your spousal benefit before full retirement age. That’s the real issue for you: whether to receive permanently reduced benefits or wait until full retirement age to collect the highest possible spousal benefit. The best strategy may be to wait until you reach full retirement age, collect just your spousal benefit and wait until 70 to collect your retirement benefit, which will be up to 76 percent higher, measured in today’s dollars, than if you had started it at age 62.

Cynthia Davies: I’m a 59-year-old professional (making upwards of $150,000 annually) who lost her job a year and a half ago. I still want to work and continue to apply for work. However, I don’t think I will get a job that will pay close to what I was making previously. My question is: will this reduction in salary (assuming I get a job soon) affect the Social Security payment I will be getting at age 62 or age 66?

Larry: It may well lower your benefit. But the benefit formula is quite progressive, so it may not matter much to your benefit.

Walker: I am 71 and I receive a small Social Security retirement. I am unable to work. Could I qualify for Social Security Disability? Or would I be summarily disqualified because of my age?

Larry: You are, as I understand it, too old to quality for Social Security disability benefits.

Terri Bishop: I took my Social Security early at age 62. I was married for 27 years and then divorced, so I got some from my ex. The amount is pitiful because in my work history I was never at a job for long. We moved around to promote my ex’s career. How do I check to see if I am getting the maximum that I can get? I need a chart of reference material. Where do I go?

Larry: The best advice I can offer is that you run our software program, Maximize My Social Security. It does cost $40, however.

( Paul Solman: Immediately after the above email came another very brief one from Ms. Bishop. )

Terri Bishop: I need to know how to get more Social Security from my ex-husband.

Larry: Killing him is one idea: you’d get the survivor’s benefit. But it’s not an idea that Paul or I would recommend. If and when he does die, however — of natural causes, presumably — you will be eligible for a survivor benefit, which will be larger than your spousal benefit. Indeed, it will equal to what he was receiving when he died.

Again, just to be clear, we do not endorse exes killing exes.

Linda: My husband is the higher earner and plans on working until 70. We are planning on having him file and suspend when I reach full retirement age, so that I can get the spousal benefit until I file at 70. Our medical insurance through his work is a high deductible plan with a health savings account. Can he file and suspend without activating Medicare?

Larry: He can file and suspend without activating Medicare to the best of my knowledge. If he works for a large employer, there is no penalty for taking Medicare Part B later. But if the employer has a small number of workers (100 or less), your husband will likely have to pay higher Medicare Part B premiums for the rest of his life. This is a nasty gotcha, one of many, which I’ve enumerated here before.

Liz Walton: Finally, someone has printed the dirty little secret of age discrimination. I lost my position as a corporate paralegal. I have been unable to find employment. My unemployment benefits ran out over a year ago. I collect Social Security benefits each month, but cannot find employment. I told my family and friends and some recruiters that I know why I am unemployable: my age. I am 68 years old but look 20 to 25 years younger. My resume reflects 25 years of experience in the legal profession. I have stopped using any dates that will divulge my age (age of graduation, present age, birthdate, etc.). I have started adding a recent photo of myself. No takers yet. I do not know if I will ever be employable again. Sad, very sad. I bring so much to any position commensurate with my experience.

Larry: Good luck. Keep trying. It only takes one intelligent employer. I think age discrimination is horrible. But it happens all the time. People get better with age. Take Paul. His knees are giving way, but his brain is getting sharper each time he edits one of my columns.

This entry is cross-posted on the Making Sen$e page, where correspondent Paul Solman answers your economic and business questions