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7 Questions About Divorcee Social Security Benefits

Included in the myriad of questions that I regularly receive from readers are questions about how a divorced person can collect benefits based upon his or her ex-spouse’s Social Security record. For a divorcee (as with many married couples) sometimes the ex’s benefits represent the lion’s share of the couple’s SS record. Because of this, many divorcees are very interested in knowing what benefits are available to them, and when. In addition, even when the divorced spouse in question is not the higher earner there are questions about benefits that can be quite difficult to find answers for.

10 questions: Social Security Spousal Benefits

I recently had the pleasure of taking part in a live interactive event with Yahoo! Finance, where folks were able to ask virtually any question they wished. We received and responded to over 200 questions – they’re all on Facebook on the Yahoo! Finance page (click the link to go to the page). One recurring theme played out over and over: Social Security Spousal Benefits are not understood by a vast number of folks. Naturally I find this to be disturbing.  Social Security Spousal Benefits often represent a large part of the total benefits available to a couple.  This benefit is even more important for many divorced spouses, as it might represent the only benefits available to many divorcees. Understanding this benefit is very important, as SSA staff often isn’t fully-conversant in the options that you have available.

Social Security Wage Base Projected for 2015

According to the Social Security Administration trustees, the Social Security wage base for 2015 is projected to be $119,100.  This represents an increase of $2,100 from the 2014 wage base of $117,000. This is an increase of 1.79% – and won’t be finalized until October when the other increases for Social Security amounts are announced. This is a relatively small increase when compared to recent annual increases we’ve seen.  The previous 3 years’ increases have averaged 3.09%. This is different from the COLA (Cost of Living Adjustment), which has increased an average of 2.27% in the past three years. The 2014 COLA (applicable to 2015 benefits and other figures) will be released later in the year, typically in October.

Windfall Elimination Provision May Impact Spousal Benefits but not Survivor Benefits

When your Social Security retirement benefit is subject to the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP), you’re likely painfully aware of the reduction to your own benefit by this provision. What you may not be aware of is that the effect goes beyond your own benefit – your spouse’s and other dependents’ benefits are also impacted by this provision. However, the impact of WEP does not continue after your death. 

3 Do Over Options For Social Security Benefits

You’re allowed to file for your Social Security retirement benefits when you reach age 62 (in general). Most advisors recommend that you delay filing until some later date to better maximize your lifetime benefits. But what do those advisors know anyhow? At least that is what you were thinking when you first filed. After all, you’ve paid into the system for your entire working life, you deserve to get the money back out, right? Plus, who knows when Social Security will go bankrupt, right? Gotta get the money while you can! Then a couple of years pass and you realize that you short-changed yourself (and your spouse) by taking early benefits. Turns out that you didn’t need that money at 62 – you could have delayed. And you’ve come to realize that Social Security is not likely to go away, at least not in your lifetime. (Maybe those advisors were […]

Social Security Spousal Benefits After a Divorce

We’ve discussed many different factors about Social Security Spousal Benefits, but what happens to Spousal Benefits after the couple has divorced? We know that a divorcee can file for Spousal Benefits if the marriage lasted for at least 10 years – but only after a 2-year period has passed if the ex-spouse has not already filed for benefits.  The only other factors that must be in place are for the ex-spouse to be at least 62 years of age, and of course the ex must have a benefit record to calculate Spousal Benefits from. On the other hand, if a couple is divorcing and one of the spouses (soon to be ex-spouses) has already filed for his or her own Social Security benefits, the other spouse can file for Spousal Benefits either before or after the divorce is finalized with no waiting period, as long as they were married for […]

File and Suspend in the Crosshairs?

Apparently in the President’s recent budget documentation there is a brief mention of a desire to curtail the availability of File and Suspend as an option for Social Security benefit filing. The reason, it appears, is that the Obama administration views this option as one used only by high income folks to take advantage of the government with this valuable option. The problem with that viewpoint is that it is used by folks of all income levels, and in fact if it is taken away this could cause some big problems for folks who can least afford to lose benefits. As if anyone can afford to lose benefits, right? Here’s what happens with File and Suspend: a Social Security benefit recipient has a spouse and/or children that would be eligible for benefits based on his or her record when he or she files for benefits.  If he or she happens […]

Your Social Security Benefits: Are They Taxable?

If you’re receiving Social Security benefits, either for disability, retirement, or survivor’s benefits, when you file your tax return you will need to figure out if the benefits you’ve received during the prior year are taxable to you. You’ll receive a Form SSA-1099 from Social Security sometime in the first months of the year, showing what your benefits were in the prior year, as well as any deductions that were made throughout the year – including Medicare premiums (Part B and/or Part D) if applicable, and federal income taxes withheld. But are the benefits taxable to you?  At most, 85% of your benefit might be taxed – and it’s possible that none of your benefit is taxable, all dependent upon your total income for the year.  See this article for a detailed explanation of How Taxation of Social Security Benefits Works.  The IRS recently published their Tax Tip 2014-23, which […]

The Unmarried Penalty With Social Security (and the Divorce Advantage)

Okay, penalty probably is the wrong term for it – maybe the better term would be short-change. You’ve undoubtedly heard of the marriage penalty for income taxes – this is where it can be beneficial tax-wise for two people to remain single than to be married and be forced to file either jointly or separately.  The tax code contains several ways that this is true.  But did you know that there is a way that married folks might level the field versus singles in the Social Security law-scape?  Plus, divorced folks may also have an advantage over singles AND married folks who were never divorced (or who divorced after marriage of less than ten years)? The Marriage Advantage When a worker remains single over his or her working life, there is an inequality in benefits paid out based on his or her record when you compare it to that of […]

The Inequity of Spousal Social Security Benefits

We’ve covered a lot of ground talking about Spousal Benefits and strategies for filing, and other facts to know about Spousal Benefits.  But did you realize that there is a flaw in the process that shortchanges some couples when it comes to Spousal Benefits? Here’s a pair of example couples to illustrate the inequity: The first couple: Jane has worked her entire life and has earned a Social Security benefit of $2,600 per month when she retires.  Her husband Sam has been a struggling artist his whole life, as well as a stay-at-home Dad to their three kids when they were young.  As a result, Sam has never generated enough income on his own to receive the requisite 40 quarter-credits to have a Social Security benefit of his own. The second couple: Sid and Nancy have both worked and had earnings within the Social Security system over their lifetimes.  Sid […]

Social Security and the Non-Citizen Spouse

With our increasingly global society today, many married couples are made up of a US citizen and a non-citizen.  In some cases, the non-citizen spouse has never been covered by the US Social Security system – he or she may have been covered by another system in his or her home country.  In other cases, the non-citizen spouse may have worked in a Social Security-covered job while living in the US, and so may have generated a Social Security earnings record of his or her own. At any rate, it is important to know that your lawful spouse who is a non-citizen may be eligible for Social Security benefits based on your earnings. As long as other qualifications are met (length of marriage, age of the spouse, and your filing status with Social Security), your non-citizen spouse may qualify for Spousal Benefits based upon your record.  By the same token, your […]

Survivor Benefits Do Not Affect Your Own Benefits (and vice versa)

I’ve had a few questions about this topic over the past several weeks, so I thought I’d run through a few examples and explain it. When you have access to a Social Security Survivor Benefit and a Social Security retirement benefit, you can maximize your lifetime benefits by coordinating the two and planning out your strategy for taking each benefit. As we’ve covered in other articles, it often is best to delay receiving your own benefit as long as possible.  This is because you will receive Delayed Retirement Credits (DRCs) for every month after you’ve reached your Full Retirement Age (FRA, which is age 66 if you were born between 1943 and 1954, and increasing gradually up to age 67 if you were born in 1955 or later).  This DRC amounts to 8% per year, or 2/3% per month. In addition, it can be beneficial to delay receiving a Survivor […]

Social Security Spousal Benefits versus Survivor Benefits

I’ve written a lot about Social Security Spousal Benefits and Survivor Benefits on these pages, but oftentimes there is confusion about how they are applied.  There are things about them that are common, but for the most part there are some real differences that you need to understand as you make decisions about applying for one or the other of these benefits. For one thing – Survivor Benefits and Spousal Benefits are benefits that you may be entitled to that are based on someone else’s record: your spouse (or ex-spouse) to be exact.  No matter what your own Social Security benefit might be, you have access to the Spousal Benefit and Survivor Benefit, if, of course, you have or had a spouse with a Social Security retirement benefit available on his or her record. In addition, it is important to note that Spousal Benefits and Survivor Benefits are mutually exclusive.  […]

Social Security Bend Points for 2014

When the Social Security Administration announced the Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) for 2014, this also allowed for calculation of the bend points for 2014. Bend points are the portions of your average income (Average Indexed Monthly Earnings – AIME) in specific dollar amounts that are indexed each year, based upon an obscure table called the Average Wage Index (AWI) Series.  They’re called bend points because they represent points on a graph of your AIME graphed by inclusion in calculating the PIA. If you’re interested in how Bend Points are used, you can see the article on Primary Insurance Amount, or PIA.  Here, however, we’ll go over how Bend Points are calculated each year.  To understand this calculation, you need to go back to 1979, the year of the Three Mile Island disaster, the introduction of the compact disc and the Iranian hostage crisis.  According to the AWI Series, in […]

Social Security Figures Increase for 2014

Recently the Social Security Administration released the updated figures for 2014, including the wage base, earnings limits, and the increase to benefits. For 2014, the wage base for Social Security will rise to $117,000.  This is the maximum amount of W2 wages that are subject to the 6.2% employer- and employee-paid Social Security tax.  This amount represents an increase of $3,300 over the wage base of $113,700 in 2013. In addition to that increase, benefits to eligible recipients of Social Security retirement will increase by 1.5% in 2014.  This is slightly less than the 1.7% increase to benefits in 2013.  This brings the average monthly benefit for all retired workers up by $19, to$1,294 in 2014.  For the average couple who are both receiving Social Security benefits, the COLA increase is $31 per month, for an average benefit of $2,111 in 2014. Likewise, there was an increase announced to the […]

How Adding to Your Earnings Can Increase Your Social Security Benefits

Given the way that Social Security benefits are calculated, it should come as no surprise that increasing your income over time will make a difference in your eventual Social Security retirement benefits.  But how much of a difference does it make when your income is increased? Of course, this is going to depend upon what your current income is, and how many years you have left before you’ll begin receiving benefits.  Keep in mind how your benefits are calculated – see this article for information about Computing Your Social Security Monthly Benefit – it’s based on your average monthly income over your lifetime.  Increasing that average will increase your PIA, which will in turn increase your benefit. It’s definitely not a simple calculation to figure out what difference each increased dollar of income will have on your benefit.  Let’s walk through a few examples to see how it plays out. […]

Social Security Filing Strategies for Surviving Spouses

There are a couple of strategies for Social Security filing that surviving spouses can use to maximize benefits throughout their lifetimes.  The important factor to keep in mind for the surviving spouse is that filing for Survivor Benefits (based on your late spouse’s record) has no impact on filing for Social Security benefits based on your own record – other than the fact that you cannot file for both benefits at the same time. Coordinating these two benefits (Surviving Spouse benefits and your own benefits) can take a couple of different paths: you could file for the Surviving Spouse benefit first, allowing your own benefit to accrue Delay Credits up to as late as age 70; or you could file for your own benefit first, and then later file for the Surviving Spouse benefit. Sue’s husband Steve passed away when Sue was 61 years of age.  Steve had just turned […]

How Your Average Indexed Monthly Earnings is Determined

In order to calculate your Social Security benefit you need to know what your PIA (Primary Insurance Amount) is.  In order to calculate the PIA, you need to know what your Average Indexed Monthly Earnings (AIME) factor is.  So how is your AIME determined? During your working career, your Social Security-covered earnings were reported to the Social Security Administration.  When you reach age 60, an index factor is applied to each year of your earnings in order to adjust each year’s earnings for inflation.  After the index factor is applied, the top 35 years of earnings are totaled and then divided by 420 (the number of months in 35 years).  This produces an average… indexed… monthly… earnings… factor. If you haven’t had a full 35 years of Social Security-covered earnings, the AIME is still calculated using 35 years as the divisor.  This can result in a much lower benefit as […]

Can Both Spouses File a Restricted Application for Spousal Benefits Only?

In the wake of my post last week, Can Both Spouses File and Suspend?, I received multiple iterations of the same question, which is the topic of today’s post: Can Both Spouses File a Restricted Application for Spousal Benefits Only? Unlike the original situation where technically it is possible to undertake but the results would not be optimal, in this situation it’s not technically possible. (The one exception is in the case of a divorced couple. For the details on how it works for divorcees, see this article: A Social Security Option Strictly for Divorced Folks.) The way the restricted application for spousal benefits works is that there are three rules that must be met: You must be at or older than Full Retirement Age (FRA) Your spouse must have filed for his or her own retirement benefit – does not have to be actively receiving benefits, he or she […]