Friday, July 30, 2021
Homedear pennyDear Penny: Will Social Security tell me when my ex-husband dies?

Dear Penny: Will Social Security tell me when my ex-husband dies?

Dear Penny,

My now ex-husband is more than 13 years older than me, and he made more money over the course of his career than me. We were married for more than 10 years and I have not remarried.

I’ve consulted a couple of Social Security planners. Because my Social Security benefits exceed 50% of your benefits AND I will likely outlive you in a decade or two, they recommend that I claim Social Security ASAP for my own benefits and collect much higher survivor benefits when he passes away.

When my ex applied for Social Security, he pointed out that I was his wife at the time, and I have income taxes and a divorce decree as proof of our common-law marriage lasting more than 10 years, so I plan to provide that information to Social Security when you claim next year.

My questions to you: Since he and I are separated, will Social Security automatically notify me of his death so I can switch to the much higher survivor benefit? If not, how do I know when to make the change?

Do you agree with the two Social Security planners that my best course of action based on our differences in age and income is to claim my own benefits early and survivors benefits later?

-K.

Dear K.,

I wouldn’t count on Social Security to connect the dots here.

Typically, the funeral home alerts Social Security when someone dies. If someone is already claiming spousal benefits, which are also available to former spouses in many cases, Social Security will automatically convert them to survivor benefits. The difference can be substantial. Spousal benefits reach a maximum of 50% of the person’s total benefit, while survivors can receive up to 100%.

Before we continue, let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room: planning Social Security benefits around the death of an ex-spouse can seem a bit crude. But it is not about supporting the disappearance of her ex-husband. Their goal is to make sure they don’t leave benefits on the table, which is a must for anyone receiving Social Security.

It is perfectly permissible to claim Social Security for an ex-spouse if they were married for at least 10 years, were divorced for two years, and have not remarried. The logic is that both spouses contribute financially, even if one spouse does not work or earns significantly less.

That infuriates a lot of people. But it really shouldn’t. When you receive benefits on a former spouse’s record, it has no impact on your benefits or the benefits your surviving spouse receives.

Social Security reviews its records annually to see if beneficiaries qualify for higher widower or widower benefits. But many people are overlooked. Last year, an internal Social Security audit found that around 15,000 people who claimed on their own records qualified for higher survivor benefits.

So how do you make sure you’re not one of them? One option would be to set up a Google alert for your ex-husband’s name. If an obituary were posted online, you would receive a notification. This is not foolproof and may not be practical if you have a very common name.

Another good solution is to call Social Security every six months. As long as you have your ex’s social security number, the agency should be able to determine if he is still living. The reason for calling twice a year is that Social Security can pay up to six months of retroactive benefits, so if you learn that your ex-husband recently passed away, you can get your late survivor benefit back.

To get survivor benefits, you will need to fill out a new application over the phone or by visiting your local office. There is no way to apply for survivor benefits online. Keep any documents you have as you will need to provide proof that you were married.

Ultimately, I am not so concerned about how she will find out about her ex-husband’s death. That kind of information tends to spread quickly in this digital age.

What worries me the most is his plan to receive benefits as soon as he turns 62. The reality is that about half of older people depend on Social Security for at least 50% of their income. By taking your benefit at 62, you would make about 76% less per month than you would start at 70.

Statistically, yes, her ex-husband is likely to survive. But you can’t make such important financial decisions based solely on a life expectancy chart. Your ex-husband could live to be 95 or 100 years old. Are you ready to live off your own lowest income for two decades or more?

You wouldn’t make any decisions assuming you will get a higher survival benefit at some point. Only start taking Social Security next year if you agree to receive a permanently reduced benefit for the foreseeable future.

Robin Hartill is a Certified Financial Planner and Senior Writer at The Penny Hoarder. Send your misleading money questions to [email protected].


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