Parting Gift From a Dead Ex

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By Martha M. Hamilton
Sunday, October 8, 2006

Dead ex-spouses are worth more than living ones.

That's not a value judgment or a reflection on my ex-husband. It's just the way a provision of Social Security works.

When you are get ready to draw Social Security, you have a choice: to draw benefits based on your own earnings, or to draw 50 percent of benefits based your ex's earnings. That's assuming you are currently unmarried and old enough yourself to be eligible for full benefits.

But once your ex dies, you may choose between benefits based on your own eligibility or 100 percent based on your ex's earnings.

I had never heard of this provision until I attended a recent conference on retirement security.

My first reaction, as a feminist, was to think: Why would I would want to draw Social Security based on anything but my own earnings?

My second reaction was: Hmm, maybe this is worth looking into.

I read my annual mailing from the SSA more attentively than I once did, but I didn't remember any reference to this potential benefit. It's there, but not in a way that jumps out. On the back page of the four-page statement, under "Survivors," it simply notes that "If you are divorced, your ex-spouse could be eligible for widow's or widower's benefit on your record when you die."

The provision was added to Social Security in a limited form in 1965, then applying to only to women and only to those who had been married at least 20 years. The intent was to provide protection for women who had spent their lives in marriages that fell apart when they were far along in years, especially women who had not worked and had no Social Security of their own. In 1977, the provision was expanded to cover men and women who had been married at least 10 years.

I fit that revised definition, and it's possible I might benefit. When I started out in the workplace -- at age 13 in the neighborhood dry cleaners, but, more to the point, at age 20 as a newspaper reporter -- women were paid far less than male colleagues for the same work. Those differences shrank over time, but I always earned less than my ex-husband who moved into a better-paying line of work, albeit always in the nonprofit sector. When we divorced, he was making more than twice as much as I did, although he ran into difficulties later.

I'm guessing that 100 percent based on my earnings will be better than 50 percent of my ex's. But it might not be better than 100 percent of his. (I should add that I wish the father of my daughter and stepson a long life, nonetheless.)

Even if you've been existing happily on your own Social Security benefit while your ex is alive, you can switch over when he or she dies.

I asked Mark Lassiter of the Social Security Administration how recipients would find out whether drawing Social Security based on their own eligibility or their ex-spouses' was a better deal. He said that when you contact the SSA about starting to draw benefits, the agency will ask questions that will determine whether you are entitled to this potential benefit, he said.

Shouldn't you be able to figure out which deal works out best for you before you get ready to draw Social Security benefits? It seems as if it would be a helpful piece of information as you try to determine what your post-retirement income will be. And you can, according to Lassiter. Even if you don't have your ex's Social Security number -- and aren't on friendly enough terms to ask for it -- the agency can find the ex's earnings records by asking you detailed questions about your ex's date of birth, place of birth and employment history, he said.

Probably the best way to find out is to contact your local Social Security office, providing the office with information that establishes who your ex-spouse is and how long you were married. The office will "be rigorous in authenticating" that you are actually due the information, he said. If you are, you can find out whether you would benefit from the alternative calculation of benefits.

Hey, knowing all that, maybe it was for better rather than worse.

Have you been concerned about the timing of your sales of stocks, bonds or mutual funds based on the coming wave of retirements by the baby boom generation? If' you're willing to discuss your concerns on the record and have your name appear in a column, contact Martha Hamilton at hamiltonm@washpost.com.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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