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 questions related to divorce and deferring Social Security.


My sister, now 65, was married for 30 years and divorced five years ago. She works part-time with enough contributions to Social Security for a very modest benefit. Her ex-husband, younger by a few years, is not yet 65 and will have to wait until nearly 68 to receive his richer full benefits. She has not yet claimed any benefits from Social Security. What would be her best strategy?



Dear Penny:

Your sister should first determine what Social Security calls her full retirement age. At this age, she will qualify for her greatest possible ex-spousal benefit.

You pose an excellent strategy question that affects many women. I urge you, and other readers, to carefully review your options. This stuff can be complicated, and this is not a speed-reading exercise!

Your sister should first determine what Social Security calls her full retirement age, or FRA. At this age, she will qualify for her greatest possible ex-spousal benefit. Unlike her own retirement benefit, if she waits beyond her FRA to file for an ex-spousal benefit it will not increase.

Even if her ex- has not filed for his own benefit when she reached her FRA, she will still be entitled to her own ex-spousal benefit because she has been divorced for more than two years. I assume she has not remarried, as this could affect her eligibility for this benefit.

If she files for an ex-spousal benefit at her FRA, her benefit will equal half of that her ex- was entitled to at his own FRA — whether or not he filed for his benefit sooner or, even, if he has not filed for it at all when she files. So, his age in this case does not affect her benefits, assuming he is at least 62 when she files.

I am assuming her ex-spousal benefit will be larger than her own retirement benefit, which you said would be very modest. She can estimate that benefit by opening an online My Social Security account, and seeing Social Security’s projections of her likely benefits at different claiming ages. If she does not know her ex-spouse’s benefits, she can call Social Security and ask for help. She will have to provide proof of her marriage and her divorce, and it will help if she knows his Social Security number.

If her own benefit will be less than her ex-spousal benefit, and her ex- has not yet filed for his own benefit, she might want to file right away for her own benefit. Because her ex- has not yet filed for his benefit, her filing will not trigger the simultaneous filing at that time for her ex-spousal benefit. If he has filed, however, any claim she makes would trigger a claim for both benefits at that time.

If it turns out she can file for her own retirement benefit without triggering her claim for an ex-spousal benefit, when she reaches her FRA she can file for the larger ex-spousal benefit. When she does, she would receive an additional payment equal to the amount by which her ex-spousal benefit exceeds the retirement benefit she already has been receiving.

If she files for her own retirement benefit now, and her ex- files for his retirement benefit prior to her FRA, this would trigger the filing of her ex-spousal benefit. However, if her ex- plans to wait until he is 68, and he is younger than she is, this should not be a concern.