In this week’s column, Phil Moeller, the author of Get What’s Yours for Medicare: Maximize Your Coverage, Minimize Your Costs and co-author of the updated edition of How to Get What’s Yours: The Revised Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security, answers a reader question about what getting divorced means for your Social Security and Medicare situation.

Got a question of your own about Medicare or Social Security? Send it to askphil@considerable.com.

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Question

I’ve spent the weekend reading so many of your readers’ questions but can’t find my situation. I’m hoping you can clarify some questions. I’m confused around how benefits are affected when a person is on disability and then gets divorced — before they reach retirement age.

I’m 51, on disability and Medicare A/B for the past two years. I’m also in my husband’s employer plan — they are primary, Medicare is secondary. I’m paying a $318 monthly surcharge because of my husband’s earnings; we currently file jointly.

I expect to remain on disability for at least the next five years as multiple surgeries are planned. I’m also expecting to divorce and have this finalized in the next two years — in any event, before I reach 62.

When the divorce is finalized and I’m removed from my husband’s insurance does the current Medicare become my primary?

If I’m still on disability at 62, does that automatically convert to regular retirement benefit, with Medicare?

Without a job and without my husband’s salary in my tax returns, I’m assuming I won’t pay a surcharge and wondering if I can still apply for ex-spouse benefits?

Thank you in advance,
Talia

Answer

Dear Talia:

I’m sorry to hear about your situation and wish you the best. I’ll respond to your questions in order.

Your existing Medicare will become your primary insurer when you are dropped from your husband’s plan. Please call Medicare in advance to make sure no one there drops the ball, which could expose you to rejected insurance claims. Even if you later resolved any misunderstandings, it is far better to avoid such problems altogether.

Add a Part D drug plan

Your note doesn’t say if you also have a Medicare Part D drug plan but you should get one if you don’t. Again, inquiring ahead of time is important, as there can be delays in the effective date of Part D enrollments. If you will need a Part D plan, use Medicare’s online Plan Finder to research plans available where you live. If you find a couple you like, call the insurers and ask them about the timing for enrollment based on when you are dropped from your husband’s plan.

Your Social Security disability payments will convert to “regular” Social Security, but this does not happen at age 62 but at your full retirement age

Medicare’s high-income surcharges

The issue about Medicare’s high-income surcharges should be resolved but, again, you should be proactive here. These surcharges have a two-year lag. Your surcharge in 2020 is based on 2018 tax returns. If your divorce is finalized in 2022, for example, you might face continued surcharges in 2023 because those charges would be based on your income in 2021 when you were still married.

Social Security grants exemptions to the surcharges for certain “life changing” events, and getting divorced and seeing your income decline is certainly one of them. Here’s the exception form you will need to provide once your divorce date has been established.

Ex-spousal Social Security benefits

Normally, you will not be eligible to file for an ex-spousal Social Security benefit until your ex-husband first has filed for his own Social Security retirement benefit. There is an exception for divorced spouses: once you’ve been divorced more than two years, you can file for an ex-spousal benefit even if your former husband has not yet filed for his own benefit.

Please let me know if you have any other questions, and best of luck.

Got a question of your own about Medicare or Social Security? Send it to askphil@considerable.com.

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