Journalist Philip Moeller answers your questions about health, aging, and retirement. Phil is the author of the book, “Get What’s Yours for Medicare,” and co-author of “Get What’s Yours: The Revised Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security.” Send your questions to Phil.
Cheryl: My ex and I were married for 25 years. In our divorce papers, he stated that I have no rights to his retirement benefits. Is that something I can get around? Or, because it’s stated in divorce papers, does that mean that I cannot benefit?
Phil Moeller: I am wading into some swampy legal terrain here and want to tread carefully. There are at least three related but also distinct issues here.
The first is whether a divorce settlement can deny future financial benefits to a spouse who would be entitled to them if still married. This is a common condition in such settlement agreements but both parties must sign such agreements, meaning that your former husband cannot unilaterally state what you will and will not be entitled to after your marriage has been legally dissolved.
Settlement agreements signed by both spouses normally include something for the spouse who has agreed to forego future retirement benefits. However, the absence of such consideration may not affect the legality of the agreement. It is hard to make a case after the fact that one spouse was forced under some kind of duress to sign the document in the first place.
The second issue here is whether a divorce settlement can cover who gets future Social Security payments. It can. In most cases, the lower-earning spouse would be interested in getting access to some or all of the higher-earning spouse’s future Social Security payments.
This future flow of income represents an asset that can be apportioned like a house or other assets in a divorce settlement. Again, however, the details of any asset disposition must be spelled out in the agreement and signed by both spouses.
Lastly, there’s the matter of whether you can file for an ex-spousal Social Security benefit based on your former husband’s earnings record. Such benefits have no impact on his own Social Security entitlements. I thus have a hard time accepting the notion that such benefits somehow would be part of his retirement benefits.
I don’t know your age or his or whether your own retirement benefits will be so large that it makes no sense to file for an ex-spousal benefit based on his earnings record.
If he has filed for his own retirement benefits, you are eligible to claim an ex-spousal benefit as early as age 62. These benefits reach their maximum if you can delay claiming until your full retirement age (FRA) or if you’ve already reached that age.
If he is at least 62 but has not yet filed for his own retirement benefits, you can still file if you’ve been divorced for at least two years.
Peter – Colorado: I’m 61 years old and began receiving Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) payments a few months ago. Now, I’ve been told that I’m being transitioned from Medicaid to Medicare and have had my SSDI monthly benefit reduced by $135 and instead used to pay a monthly Medicare premium. Are there going to be other cost implications of this Medicaid-to-Medicare transition? What about my dental care, which I just re-started, after years of focusing on stroke recovery efforts?
Phil Moeller: I don’t know for sure, but it sounds like your SSDI payments have increased your income enough to make you no longer eligible for Medicaid benefits in Colorado. I guess this is a “good” thing, but it can seem otherwise.
That’s especially true insofar as dental care is concerned. Medicaid covers some of this care but Medicare does not cover routine dental care. You can buy private dental insurance, but it provides modest benefits.
You also may need a Medicare Part D plan to cover prescription drugs that were covered at no cost to you under Medicaid. Lastly, Part B of Medicare pays only 80 percent of covered expenses.
I would look into getting a Medicare Advantage (MA) plan with Part D coverage bundled in. It will protect you from catastrophic Part B exposure. Most MA plans also provide some dental coverage. You would still need to make the $135 Medicare Part B payment plus whatever the MA premium was. However, MA plans generally are the cheapest solution for someone in your situation.
These plans do limit coverage to doctors and hospitals in the plan’s provider network, so if you have doctors you want to keep seeing, you should ask them if they are in the network of whatever MA plan you like.
You can do an online review of MA plans at Medicare’s Plan Finder site.