Social Security Matters

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Dear Rusty: I am very confused about where I stand with Social Security. I have been divorced twice. First husband is 79; I was married to him for 10 years. He is remarried and collecting Social Security. Second husband is 69; I was married to him for 33 years. He is not remarried and is still actively working. I'm not sure if he collects yet. Both husbands were professionals who had very high incomes.

I am 75 and have been collecting Social Security from the age of 63 based on 21 active years of teaching in the city school system, and my Social Security benefit is about $1334. I have been working part time ever since but not making more than around $5000 a year. I have been to my local Social Security office three times and have been told each time that I cannot collect any of my ex-spouses' Social Security until they die. Is this correct information? Signed: Confused

Dear Confused: As an ex-spouse you are eligible for spousal benefits if you meet certain criteria, which include being at least 62 years of age, not currently married, married to your ex for at least 10 years (and divorced at least 2 if the other spouse is eligible for Social Security but not yet collecting). However in order for you to collect, your benefit amount as an ex- spouse must be greater than the benefit you are already receiving on your own work record.

The benefit you are entitled to as an ex-spouse is 50% of either of your ex-husbands' Primary Insurance Amount (or PIA, the amount they were entitled to at their full retirement age). While both of your ex-husbands may be (or may have been) high-income professionals, they only paid Social Security FICA taxes on whatever the payroll tax limit was for each year in their respective careers ($127,200 in 2017 but less in preceding years). There is also a maximum PIA amount which beneficiaries can earn in retirement benefits. For 2017 that maximum is $2687, but it was less in previous years. So let's explore the possibilities:

Husband number 1 is now 79 years old, was a high-earner and was born in 1938. Assuming he contributed the maximum amount to Social Security over his career, his PIA at his full retirement age of 65 years and 2 months in 2003 could not have been higher than about $2,450. As his ex-spouse (or spouse) you would be entitled to 50% of his PIA, or about $1,225.

Husband number 2 is now 69 years old, also a high-earner, and was born in 1948. Again assuming he contributed the maximum amount to Social Security over his career, his PIA at his full retirement age of 66 in 2014 could not have been higher than $2,533. As his ex-spouse (or spouse) you would be entitled to 50% of his PIA, or about $1,266.

Since your Social Security monthly benefit on your own work record is $1,334, and since that is more than 50% of both ex-husbands' PIA, you cannot get a "spousal boost" from their Social Security record. The reason Social Security said that you cannot collect anything until one of your ex-husbands die is because as a surviving ex-spouse (or spouse) you are entitled to 100% of either the deceased PIA or, if they waited beyond their full retirement age to start benefits whatever they were collecting (or were eligible to collect) upon their death. And obviously 100% of either ex-spouse's benefit would be more than your benefit from your own work record.

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