Social Security Matters: Ask Rusty – What do my wife, and my ex-wife, get when I die?

Published 11:43 pm Saturday, July 23, 2022

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By AMAC Certified Social Security Advisor Russell Gloor, Association of Mature American Citizens

Dear Rusty: I am a 77 year old married male. I am retired and started drawing Social Security at age 66 and my monthly amount is a little over $3,000. My present wife is 52 and employed, and we have been married for 22 years. I also have an ex-wife who is 85, not married, and drawing Social Security. My ex-wife and I were married 13 years.

When I am deceased, what happens to my Social Security benefits? When my present wife decides to receive Social Security benefits, would she draw the higher benefit of our monthly amounts? Would my ex-wife be able to increase her benefit? Signed: Planning Ahead

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Dear Planning Ahead: In the event of your death, here is how Social Security eligibility would work for your current wife and for your ex-wife:

For your current wife, unless she is disabled, she cannot collect a survivor benefit as your widow until she is at least 60 years old. However, if she claims her survivor benefit before reaching her full retirement age (FRA), it will be reduced. Claimed at age 60, her benefit as your widow would be 71.5% of the amount you were receiving at your death. If she waited beyond age 60 to claim, her survivor benefit would continue to grow until it reached maximum at her FRA of age 67 (100% of the benefit you were receiving when you died). She would also have the option to wait until age 62 and claim her own reduced personally-earned Social Security benefit first while allowing her survivor benefit to grow to maximum at age 67; or she could take her reduced survivor benefit only first and allow her personally-earned Social Security benefit to grow to maximum at age 70. She should choose whichever strategy would give her the highest benefit for the rest of her life.

Note, too, that if your current wife were to collect any benefit before reaching her full retirement age (67) and she works, she would be subject to Social Security’s earnings test. The earnings test limits how much can be earned before some of her benefits are taken away by Social Security. For reference, the 2022 earnings limit is $19,560, but it changes annually. If the annual earnings limit in force when your wife claims is exceeded and she hasn’t yet reached age 67, Social Security will take away benefits equal to $1 for every $2 over the limit. The limit is higher and the penalty is less in the year FRA is reached and the earnings test goes away when your current wife is 67.

Regarding your ex-wife, if you die first and because you were married for more than 10 years, your ex-wife will be entitled to collect a survivor benefit from you, if that amount (what you were receiving at your death) is more than she is currently receiving based on her own lifetime work record (she would get the higher of the two amounts). Your ex-wife would need to contact Social Security to claim her survivor benefit from you and your ex-wife collecting a survivor benefit from you will not affect your current wife’s benefit in any way – both can get their full survivor benefit from you independent of each other and neither will be reduced because more than one wife is collecting.

For clarity, since you and your ex-wife are both already collecting Social Security, your ex-wife may be entitled to a spousal boost from you while you are both living, if her own personally-earned FRA benefit amount is less than 50% of your Social Security benefit and that would have no effect on either your own current benefit or your current wife’s survivor entitlement. Your ex-wife would need to contact Social Security directly to apply for her ex-spouse benefit from you while you are both living.