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, explains how the Social Security Administration calculates spousal benefits and the implications of claiming it.

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Question: Hello! I found your email when I was looking online for information on Social Security benefits.

My name is Pam and I am 59. I am divorced and was married 25 years. I was told I can collect half of my ex-husband’s Social Security if he makes more money than me, which he does.

Am I able to collect mine also? Or just his? And approximately how much would I collect monthly at age 67 when I retire?

Also, I know I have to be 62 to start collecting. Does my ex-husband have to be 62 also for me to collect on his? Or just me?

Answer: Dear Pam, Your questions open up the can-of-worms complexity that can spill out when someone like you asks perfectly logical questions about Social Security benefits.

The maximum amount of spousal benefits a person can collect – either from a current or formal spouse – is half of that spouse’s benefit based on what he or she would have gotten had they filed for benefits the day they reached their full retirement age (FRA). This rule may make sense to the folks at the Social Security Administration (SSA), but it is anything but clear to most of the people who post questions to me. 

For example, it doesn’t mean that the spouse or ex-spouse actually did file for benefits at their FRA, but simply that this age is used to determine the dollar basis for spousal or ex-spousal benefits based on that person’s Social Security earnings record.

Further, even people who make a lot less money than their husband will never qualify for a spousal or ex-spousal benefit. The SSA has what’s called a progressive benefits formula, meaning that lower-income workers get a much higher percentage of their earnings back as benefits than do people who earn more money.

This is helpful to lower-income earners, of course, but it also means their retirement benefits will often be higher than the maximum spousal or ex-spousal benefit they are entitled to, even if their current or former spouse has earned much more money.

The rules also specify that a person must wait until their own FRA to file for a spousal or ex-spousal benefit in order to receive the maximum payout of half of their spouse or former spouse’s FRA entitlement.

Because you were born in 1960, your FRA is 67, meaning you have a long, long wait to get this maximum payout. Your benefit will be sharply reduced if you file sooner.

The size of your benefit is linked to your and your ex-husband’s earnings. You can find out your entitlements by opening a My Social Security account.

The size of your benefit is linked to your and your ex-husband’s earnings.

Your husband has to have filed for his own retirement for you to be eligible for a spousal benefit. The rules are a bit different for ex-spousal benefits.

Even if he has not yet filed, you can still qualify for an ex-spousal benefit if he is at least 62 and you have been divorced for at least two years. 

Whenever you do file for a benefit–either your own or an ex-spousal benefit–Social Security will consider you at that time to have filed for both benefits and will award you a benefit equal to the larger of the two.

By the time you work through all of this, perhaps you will have reached your FRA! Best of luck!

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