Social Security if you’re single or divorced

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Sandra Block

When it comes to Social Security, if you’re single, you have fewer options than your married friends. But you can still take steps to increase your lifetime benefits. And divorced people may still be able to claim benefits based on their ex’s earnings.

Here are some strategies to maximize your benefits.

Single retirees who never married don’t need to concern themselves with survivor benefits. That gives single beneficiaries a less compelling reason to postpone claiming benefits after full retirement age.

But suppose you’re healthy and want to postpone taking benefits so you can earn delayed-retirement credits (that is, the extra 5.5 to 8 percent per year you get for delaying your receipt of Social Security benefits). You should still file at 66 and suspend your benefits.

Here’s why: Ordinarily, Social Security will pay no more than six months’ worth of benefits retroactively. But if you file and suspend at age 66, you’re eligible to collect all of the benefits that accumulate after you file your claim. That could provide a significant cash reserve for unexpected expenses, such as a catastrophic illness or long-term care.

This strategy also reduces the risk that you’ll die before you’ve had an opportunity to take advantage of delayed credits, said William Reichenstein, professor of finance at Baylor University and a principal with consulting firm Social Security Solutions. (Kiplinger has partnered with Social Security Solutions to offer a tool to uncover the most advantageous time to start collecting your benefits; visit www.kiplinger.socialsecuritysolutions.com for details.)

Widows and widowers

You’re eligible for a survivor benefit based on your deceased spouse’s earnings. You can claim this benefit as early as age 60, or 50 if you’re totally disabled. The amount is based on your late spouse’s benefit when he or she died. If your spouse died before claiming Social Security, the benefit will be based on 100 percent of the amount due at your late spouse’s full retirement age.

Most widows receive a higher payment by claiming their husband’s monthly benefit instead of their own, according to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. And the age a husband chooses to start collecting his own benefit can have a significant impact on his widow’s ultimate survivor benefit.

In order for you to receive 100 percent of your late spouse’s benefit, you must wait to claim until your full retirement age. Otherwise, the benefit will be reduced by a certain amount for each month you file before your full retirement age. Remarriage won’t affect survivor benefits as long as you’re 60 or older when you remarry.

Don’t ignore your own benefits, though. If you expect to live a long time, it might make sense to claim survivor benefits, even if they’re smaller than your own, so your own benefits can continue to grow. Once you reach age 70, you can switch to your own benefit, which will have been enhanced by the delayed-retirement credits.

If you are divorced

Even if you haven’t spoken to your ex for years, you may be eligible for benefits based on his or her earnings record. If you left the workforce to care for children or aging parents, or simply earned a lot less than your former spouse, this provision could dramatically bump up your benefits.

In order to claim either spousal or survivor benefits, you must have been married for at least 10 years and not be entitled to a higher benefit based on your own record. In addition, you must be at least 62 and unmarried. You’ll lose the spousal benefit if you remarry, although you can reapply if you get divorced again or your second spouse dies.

You can collect spousal benefits even if your ex hasn’t applied for benefits, as long as he or she is at least 62 and you’ve been divorced for at least two years. (You don’t even have to tell your ex that you’re applying for benefits based on his or her record.)

In addition, your spousal benefits will have no effect on the benefits your ex (or your ex’s new husband or wife) receives. You will, however, need to provide the Social Security Administration with a copy of your divorce decree, and it’s helpful to have your ex’s Social Security number, too.

As is the case with other benefits, you can increase your lifetime benefits by delaying your claim. If you wait until you reach full retirement age, you’ll be eligible for 50 percent of your ex’s benefits at his or her full retirement age. You can apply earlier, but your benefits will be reduced by between 7 and 8 percent for each year before your full retirement age.

Divorced spouses who have their own work history can take advantage of the “restricting an application” strategy used by married couples — that is, after you reach full retirement age, claim 50 percent of your ex’s benefits, based on your former spouse’s earnings.

This will enable your own benefits to earn the delayed-retirement credit. When you turn 70, you can switch back to your own, now-larger benefits.

Divorced spouses are also eligible for survivor benefits, as long as the marriage lasted 10 years or more. If your ex dies, you’re eligible for 100 percent of his or her payout. Remarriage won’t affect your eligibility as long as you’re at least 60 (or age 50 if you’re totally disabled). You can switch back to your own benefits at 70 (or earlier) if that would result in a larger monthly payment.

Sandra Block is a senior associate editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine.

© 2015 Kiplinger’s Personal Finance; Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.