You may be able to claim on your ex's earnings record
Points to know
- If your ex-spouse qualifies for Social Security retirement benefits, you were married for at least 10 years, and you're not remarried, you may be eligible to claim on your ex's earnings record.
- If you're going to collect on your ex's record, you'll be eligible for half of your spouse's full benefits if you start collecting at your full retirement age.
Start with your benefits estimates
Your first step in maximizing your Social Security benefits should be to visit the Social Security Administration (SSA) website. If you know your ex's Social Security number, you can check for his or her benefits as well. Or you can ask your ex about his or her benefits if the two of you are on good terms.
If you're not, the SSA can give you information about your ex's benefits. You'll need both your and your ex-spouse's benefits estimates to determine your best Social Security claiming strategy.
When you file for Social Security, you file for all the benefits for which you're eligible, including divorced spousal benefits. So even if you don't know your former spouse's Social Security number, you can still file for and receive divorced spousal benefits.
Good to know
Don't know—and can't ask for—your ex's Social Security number? Don't worry. When you apply for Social Security, you can get an estimate of what you might receive by providing your former spouse's name, date and place of birth, and parents' names.
GET YOUR SOCIAL SECURITY ESTIMATES
The Social Security Administration (SSA) website provides estimates for how much you'll collect if you start receiving benefits at age 62, your full retirement age (FRA) (between 66 and 67), and age 70.
Factors that could reduce your payments
Before you plug your Social Security estimates into your retirement plan, be sure to adjust those estimates if any of these factors apply to see how much you might actually end up with.
Whose earnings record should you collect on?
If your ex qualifies for Social Security benefits, you were married for at least 10 years, and you're not remarried, you have options.
You can claim Social Security on your own earnings record or on your ex's record. If your ex qualifies for Social Security but isn't already collecting, you can still collect on his or her record if you've been divorced for at least 2 years.
You're entitled to half of your ex's benefits if you start collecting once you reach your full retirement age (FRA). But you won't receive increased benefits by waiting past your FRA.
If the benefits you'd receive by collecting on your own earnings record are more than what you'd collect on you ex's record, consider collecting on your own record.
Full retirement age (FRA)
The age at which you're eligible for your full monthly benefits, also known as the primary insurance amount (PIA). The Social Security Administration sometimes refers to full retirement age as "normal retirement age" (NRA).
The history of your earnings for the years you worked.
Primary insurance amounts (PIA)
Also known as the full monthly benefit amount, the Social Security benefits you'll receive if you start collecting at your full retirement age (FRA). The benefits are based on your historical earnings.
Divorced spousal benefits
Benefits paid to the divorced spouse of an eligible worker to whom the spouse was married for at least 10 years.
Quick facts about claiming on your ex's earnings record:
- You can claim even if your ex has remarried.
- You can claim even if your ex hasn't retired and isn't receiving Social Security benefits (as long as your ex is at least 62).
- Claiming won't reduce your ex's Social Security benefits or his or her current spouse's benefits.
- The SSA won't notify your ex that you've claimed on his or her record.
Figure out the best time to claim Social Security
As you consider the right time to start collecting Social Security, remember that if you decide to delay, you can revisit that decision as often as you'd like.
The "reset" rule
Deborah started to receive Social Security benefits at age 64. Nearly a year later, she's working again and she wishes she'd waited until her full retirement age (FRA) so that she could have received higher benefits. Deborah can pay back all the payments she received, without interest, and file paperwork with the Social Security Administration to stop her benefits and withdraw her application.
By doing that, she "resets" her Social Security benefits so that when she starts to collect again, she'll receive a higher benefit amount based on her age. Deborah needs to consider the source of the funds she's required to return to Social Security. Using taxable assets or taking a distribution from a retirement account may be the most tax-efficient means of raising funds for the payback.
Cheryl, age 61, is starting to look at her Social Security options.
- If she claims early, at age 62, her benefits would be reduced by 25% to $750 a month.
- If she claims her benefits at her full retirement age (FRA) of 66, she'll be due $1,000 a month.
- If she waits until age 70 to claim, that number would rise 32% to $1,320 a month (in real, inflation-adjusted terms).
Now, if Cheryl claims early (the "start"), she can voluntarily suspend her benefits at age 66 (the "stop").
Then when she resumes her benefits at age 70 (the second "start"), that $750 she had been receiving before she suspended her benefits would rise by 32% to $990 a month. That payment is significantly higher than $750, but is far lower than the $1,320 she'd receive if she waited until age 70 to claim benefits initially.*
*Sources: Vanguard calculations, based on data from Society of Actuaries, 2014, RP-2014 Mortality Tables Report (Schaumberg, Ill.: Society of Actuaries), and Society of Actuaries, 2014, Mortality Improvement Scale MP-2014 Report (Schaumberg, Ill.: Society of Actuaries).
Anyone who's paid Social Security taxes for at least 10 years can start to receive retirement benefits as early as age 62 based on his or her earnings record.
Collecting Social Security at 62 has some advantages. For example, you may be ready to retire and counting on Social Security as the cornerstone of your retirement plan. After all, if you've paid 10 years of Social Security taxes, then you're entitled to Social Security benefits.
If you have serious health problems or a family history that suggests you may not live long enough to profit from waiting, collecting early might make the most sense for you.
On the other hand, the earlier you start to collect, the less you'll receive each month. But if you start to collect and then change your mind, you have 2 options.
The "reset" rule
Within 12 months of starting to collect, you can "reset" your benefits to erase the reduction, but you must repay all of the benefits you and your family earned.
See how it works: The "reset" rule
The voluntary suspension rule
If you started collecting before your full retirement age (FRA), you can suspend your benefits at FRA and restart them later.
See how it works: Voluntary suspension
If you start collecting Social Security retirement benefits at your full retirement age (FRA), you'll receive 100% of your primary insurance amount (PIA). But remember that you can collect more than 100% of your PIA by waiting beyond your FRA.
You'll earn an extra 0.67% each month that you delay your Social Security benefits past your FRA. That's an extra 8% for each year that you wait past FRA … and what other investment can guarantee an 8% annual increase?*
Of course, you don't have to file when you reach one of the milestones listed above—62, full retirement age (FRA), or 70. You can apply for survivors benefits as early as age 60 and for your own Social Security retirement benefits anytime between the ages of 62 and 70.
Born before January 2, 1954
Maria and Tom were married for 22 years and have been divorced for 15 years. Maria never remarried. (Tom did remarry, which affects his ability to claim on Maria's earnings record, but it doesn't affect Maria's ability to claim on his record.) They're both 65, both were born before January 2, 1954, and their full retirement age (FRA) is 66.
At FRA, Maria will be eligible to receive $1,200 a month based on her own record, and Tom will be eligible to receive $2,000 a month based on his record.
Maria will have 2 options when she reaches FRA:
- She can collect on her own record, which will pay her $1,200 a month.
- She can collect on Tom's record, which will pay her half of Tom's benefits— $1,000 a month.
Why might Maria consider taking the lower payment at FRA? Because that decision could pay off for her in the long run.
If she collects on Tom's record first, Maria's own benefits would increase to $1,584 a month at age 70. Maria has a family history of longevity, and she's in relatively good health at age 66. So she decides to claim on Tom's record first, then switch to her own record at 70.
Tom never needs to know that Maria is claiming based on his record, and Maria's claim doesn't affect his ability to claim. But if Maria remarries between 66 and 70, she won't be able to claim on Tom's record.
The option to claim on Tom's record first and allow her primary insurance amount (PIA) to grow is only available to Maria because she was born before January 2, 1954.
Had she been born on or after that date, at FRA she would have qualified for $1,200 a month based on her own record or $1,000 a month based on Tom's record. If she delayed Social Security until age 70, her own benefits would increase 8% for each year she waits past her FRA. But her benefits based on Tom's record wouldn't grow.
An advanced claiming strategy (if you were born before January 2, 1954)
If you were born before January 2, 1954, you have an additional option. You can claim on one earnings record at full retirement age (FRA) and then switch to the other later. In some cases, taking the lower benefits at FRA can pay off down the road.
See how it works: Born before January 2, 1954
Social Security provides more than just retirement benefits. And the federal government offers more than just Social Security benefits. As you put your retirement plan together, check to see whether you qualify for other government benefits, such as family and children services, tax assistance, and active military or veterans benefits.
Apply for Social Security
You can file for Social Security benefits online, over the phone, or in person at a local Social Security Administration office.
You may need to produce these documents when you apply
- Your Social Security card.
- An original birth certificate or other proof of your birth.
- A copy of your W-2 form or self-employment tax return for the previous year.
- Your marriage certificate and divorce decree.
- If you weren't born in the United States, proof of U.S. citizenship or lawful alien status.
A Vanguard advisor can help
If you're struggling with making your best Social Security decision, we can help. You'll also get a custom financial plan, ongoing portfolio management, investment coaching, and real-time goal tracking—all at a low cost.
Build your Social Security strategy
Read our Social Security brochure
*The amount of your monthly benefits also increases for each month you wait between age 62 and your full retirement age (FRA), but the rate is lower than 8% per year and varies depending on your age.
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