A whopping 91% of Americans over the age of 50 don't understand what factors determine the amount they can potentially receive in Social Security benefits, a survey from the Nationwide Retirement Institute found.
There are several factors that can affect how much you receive in Social Security benefits, such as the age at which you claim, whether you continue working after you claim benefits, and how much you earned during the years you paid into Social Security.
One factor that's easy to overlook, however, is divorce. If you are currently divorced and were married for at least 10 years, you or your ex-spouse could be earning more in Social Security benefits than you think.
How divorce affects Social Security
Not all divorced couples are eligible to receive additional benefits once they start claiming Social Security, and there are certain requirements you'll have to meet.
The first thing to consider is how your benefits compare to your ex-spouse's. If you're receiving more in Social Security benefits than your ex-spouse (or if you haven't claimed yet but are expected to receive more than your ex-spouse), you're not eligible for any additional money each month. But if you're receiving less each month than your ex, you may be eligible for an increase in benefits based on your ex-spouse's work record.
Assuming you're receiving less than your ex-spouse in benefits, there are a few other requirements you'll need to meet. First, you and your former spouse need to have been married for at least 10 years, and you cannot currently be married (although it doesn't matter whether your ex-spouse has remarried or not). In order to start claiming benefits, you also need to be at least 62 years old.
If you and your ex-spouse are old enough to file for benefits but your ex hasn't claimed them yet, you can still claim your benefits based on their work record if you have been divorced for at least two years. Also, if you're eligible for benefits based on your own work record, that money will be paid out first. Then if you're also eligible to receive extra benefits based on your ex-spouse's record, you'll receive an additional amount each month.
Exactly how much extra you'll receive depends on the age at which you claim. In order to receive the full amount you're entitled to, you'll have to wait until your full retirement age (FRA) -- which is either age 66, 67, or somewhere in between. If you claim before then (as early as age 62), your benefits will be reduced. By waiting until your FRA, assuming you're eligible to receive benefits based on your ex-spouse's record, you can receive half of the amount your ex is eligible to collect at his or her FRA.
One last thing to keep in mind is that regardless of how much someone is receiving in benefits based on their ex-spouses record, it doesn't affect how much the other person or their current spouse receives in benefits. So if, say, your ex-wife is receiving benefits based on your record, your and your current wife's benefits will not be reduced as a result.
Social Security in action: A hypothetical example
Figuring out whether you can claim benefits based on an ex-spouse's record and calculating what you'd actually receive is complicated and confusing. So let's look at a hypothetical example to make it a little easier to understand.
Let's say you and your husband were married 20 years, and you never remarried after the divorce. Your FRA is 67 years old, and if you claim at that age, you'd be receiving $1,000 per month based on your own work record and earnings. Your ex-husband, however, is currently receiving $2,500 per month in benefits after claiming at his FRA. Because you were married at least 10 years, you're unmarried now, and you're eligible to receive less in benefits than your ex-spouse, you can apply for benefits based on your ex-husband's record.
For simplicity's sake, let's say you wait until your FRA to claim. By doing so, you'll receive the full $1,000 you're entitled to based on your own record. Based on your ex-husband's work record, you're eligible to receive half of what he's receiving, or $1,250 per month. With ex-spouse benefits, you're not allowed to "double dip" -- meaning you won't receive your $1,000 plus $1,250 based on your ex-husband's record. Rather, you'll receive your $1,000 and an additional $250 per month so that your total benefit amount is equal to half of what your ex-spouse is receiving in benefits.
Also, all the normal Social Security restrictions still apply here. So if, for example, you claim earlier than your FRA, your benefits will be reduced. And if you continue working after claiming benefits, you may see a (temporary) reduction in benefits as well, depending on how much you're earning.
Social Security benefits can seem complex, and there are many factors that contribute to how much you'll receive each month. But by understanding how much you're entitled to and whether you're eligible for additional benefits, you can maximize your monthly checks -- and enjoy a more financially stable retirement.