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U.S. Social Security card designs over the past several decades. Photo by REUTERS/Hyungwon Kang

Do I have to wait for my ex to file for Social Security to get my benefits?

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.

Sue – New Jersey: I am 65 years old, work part-time, and was married for 32 years, at which time I divorced my husband due to abandonment. He is now 67 and works somewhere in the Middle East; I assume he is still an American citizen.

I was told by Social Security that I cannot claim a spousal benefit based on his Social Security until he begins taking his benefit. Is that true?

I am also the sole guardian of our adult disabled son, who has Down syndrome. I was told the same thing – that his father would have to file for his own Social Security before my son is eligible for a child benefit based on his father’s Social Security record. Is this true?

Phil Moeller: With apologies, Sue, your situation triggers a host of complicated Social Security claiming rules that affect millions of people, not just you.

First off, what Social Security told you about your spousal benefit may not be true. These rules are complicated, but you may be eligible for an ex-spousal benefit even if your ex has not filed for his own Social Security. Your eligibility for this benefit is based on you not having remarried or only having done so after age 60, being divorced for at least two years, and your ex being 62 years old or older.

The situation with your son’s benefits is less clear (at least to me). Normally, your former husband would have to file to trigger the right for your son to receive a benefit based on your former husband’s work record.

Sue’s reply: I have never remarried, so I guess I am eligible for an ex-spousal benefit, which is good news. But if my ex needs to file before my son can claim a benefit based on his father’s work record, what are our prospects if his father never files? Would we have to wait for some mandated period to pass or would it be only possible to file after my ex died?

Phil Moeller: For help with this issue, I turned to Jerry Lutz, a retired Social Security claims expert. Jerry noted that there is potentially not just one benefit involving your son but two. One is a benefit for your son and the other is a benefit for you for caring for your son. Unfortunately, your ex- needs to file for his own Social Security to trigger either of them. Here is Jerry’s explanation:

“Her son couldn’t qualify for disabled child’s benefits on the father’s record until the father either files for his benefits or dies. That also means Sue can’t qualify for unreduced child-in-care divorced spousal benefits either. You must have a child who is currently eligible for benefits on the worker’s record in order to qualify for child-in-care benefits, and no child or disabled child benefit eligibility is possible until the worker files for benefits or dies.”

Jerry also notes that you need to be careful about the timing for filing your ex-spousal benefit, but there is good news here as well.

First off, you should wait to file for this benefit until you have reached your full retirement age (FRA) under Social Security’s rules. Because you were born in 1954, this will be when you turn 66 next year.

If you filed for this benefit before then, three bad things would happen. First, your benefit would be reduced because you filed before your FRA. Second, filing early would also trigger Social Security’s earnings test, which may reduce your benefit because of your wages. Third, and potentially most important, filing early also would trigger the simultaneous filing for your own retirement benefit, robbing you of the delayed retirement credits that increase your retirement benefit 8 percent per year until age 70.

The first two problems go away if you wait until your FRA to file. Spousal and ex-spousal benefits reach their maximum amount at FRA. Also, the earnings test no longer applies to outside earnings of people who have reached their FRA.

However, the third problem remains. Under changes to Social Security rules approved by Congress in 2015, anyone born after Jan. 2, 1954 will trigger both their spousal/ex-spousal and their own retirement benefit if they file for either of them. Unless you were born on Jan. 1, 1954, you are out of luck here.

So, while it’s good news that you can file for an ex-spousal benefit at your FRA, you may need to reconsider doing so. If your own retirement benefit at age 70 is going to be much higher than your ex-spousal benefit, you should seriously consider holding off filing for any benefit now.

You can see how much your own benefit would be by signing up for an online My Social Security account. You probably will need a Social Security representative to look up your husband’s earnings history and tell you the amount of your ex-spousal benefit. Best of luck to you and your son.

Pat – Minnesota: My husband started collecting Social Security disability back about 12 years ago. He recently passed away. He was 67. I just turned 65, am working full-time and make a decent wage. His check paid our mortgage each month and my check paid all the other bills, but I am nervous about paying all the bills these next few months until I can re-work all my finances. I’ve been told that I might get some extra money from his Social Security since he has passed away. Is this true, or will I have to wait until next year when I turn 66?

Phil Moeller: I’m sorry for your loss.

Because you are still working, any Social Security benefits you receive could be reduced or even eliminated by Social Security’s earnings test. However, it has no effect on benefits received after full retirement age.

For this reason, and because survivor benefits also reach their maximum amount at FRA, I’d wait until then to file.

Your own retirement benefit will not reach its maximum unless you wait to claim it until you are 70. Given that you earn a decent wage and your late husband was on disability, it’s almost certain that your own retirement benefit will wind up being greater at age 70 than your survivor benefit.

Your best strategy is thus to claim your survivor benefit at your FRA and then claim your own retirement benefit at 70. At that time, you won’t receive the full amount of both benefits but a payment equal to the larger of the two.

If you are already receiving a survivor benefit when you turn 70 and claim your own, you would get an additional payment equal to the amount by which your retirement benefit exceeded your survivor benefit.

Bob – Pennsylvania: My wife turned 65 but does not have enough quarters of Social Security work earnings (40 quarters) to qualify for premium-free Part A of Medicare. However, I understand that she can piggy-back on my Medicare when I turn 65. Even though she doesn’t have the required time, does she still need to sign up?

Phil Moeller: Yes, she does need to sign up at 65 if she is not covered by an active employer plan. The good news here is that she already qualifies for premium-free Part A based on your record. You only need to be eligible to file for Social Security to enable her to get premium-free Part A. This occurred when you turned 62, which is the earliest Social Security filing date for people without disabilities. So, she doesn’t need to wait until you have turned 65!

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