Personal Finance

Can I Switch to Spousal Social Security Benefits When My Ex Dies?

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Welcome to our “Social Security Q&A” series. You ask a question about Social Security, and a guest expert answers it.

You can learn how to ask a question of your own below. And if you would like a personalized report detailing your optimal Social Security claiming strategy, click here. Check it out: It could result in receiving thousands of dollars more in benefits over your lifetime!

Today’s question comes from Pam:

“I will reach full retirement at 66 and 2 months. (I was born in 1955.) At that time, I plan to claim Social Security benefits.

My ex-husband’s benefits are much greater than mine. I’m not sure if he has claimed yet. When he dies, which I expect may happen (soon) because he is in poor health, can I switch to spousal death benefits at that time and get his full Social Security benefits? We were married 12 years, and I have not remarried.”

The best time to claim

Pam: As a divorcee who had been married more than 10 years and has not remarried, you are eligible to receive the same benefits as a spouse. The only real difference is that a spouse cannot claim a spousal benefit until his/her partner claims first, but an ex-spouse can claim a spousal benefit once the ex-spouse reaches age 62.

You state that you plan to claim your own benefit at your full retirement age. This makes sense if your own benefit is more than half the benefit of your ex-spouse. If it is smaller than half, your spousal benefit would be larger, and you should claim a spousal benefit instead.

(Note that, under what is called the “deeming rule,” if you claim one benefit — e.g., an ex-spousal benefit — and are eligible for a second benefit — e.g., a retirement benefit — you are “deemed” to have claimed the retirement benefit, too. In other words, once you claim one of these benefits, you cannot go back later and claim the other.)

When your ex-spouse passes, you will be eligible to receive his survivor benefit. The size of this benefit depends on when he decides to claim — or if he does not claim before his death, it will either be his benefit at full employment age (FRA), or if he is older than his FRA, it will be the benefit he would have received if he claimed at the time of his death. The longer he waits to claim, up until age 70, the larger the survivor benefit you will receive.

Survivor benefits are not affected by the deemed filing rule. So, you can claim a survivor benefit and let your retirement benefit grow up to age 70. Or you could claim retirement benefits as early as age 62 and then switch to a survivor benefit at your FRA, when the benefit reaches its maximum.

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About me

I hold a doctorate in economics from the University of Pennsylvania and taught economics at the University of Delaware for many years. Presently, I am teaching at Gallaudet University.

In 2009, I co-founded, an internet company that provides advice on Social Security claiming decisions. You can learn more about that by clicking here.

Disclaimer: We strive to provide accurate information with regard to the subject matter covered. It is offered with the understanding that we are not offering legal, accounting, investment or other professional advice or services, and that the SSA alone makes all final determinations on your eligibility for benefits and the benefit amounts. Our advice on claiming strategies does not comprise a comprehensive financial plan. You should consult with your financial adviser regarding your individual situation.

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.

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