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Retirement expert Marcia Mantell

Retirement Planning > Social Security

What Divorced Women Should Know About Claiming Social Security

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Chances are you don’t give a hoot that Johnny Carson’s second wife failed to get Social Security benefits on the work records of the “The Tonight Show” host even though his first, third and fourth wives did.

Knowing why, however, can help you understand some of Social Security’s tangled, detail-riddled rules and more knowledgeably guide clients through their claiming decisions. So says Social Security expert Marcia Mantell, who is nearly certain that the Carson tale she heard about is true.

In an interview, the founder of Mantell Retirement Consulting zeroes in on divorced women’s claiming strategies, especially the ins and outs of ex-wives’ eligibility to claim on their former husbands’ work history. Men and women are typically shocked when they learn this is permissible, she says.

Moreover, both a current wife and an ex-wife can claim on the same husband’s Social Security benefits — and they don’t have to divvy up the money, says Mantell, who holds the National Social Security Advisor designation.

Mantell, a former Fidelity Investments executive vice president and frequent public speaker, has just released her second book, “What’s the Deal with Social Security for Women?” (Rethink Press-November 2019).

Packed with real-life examples, the book brings Social Security’s convoluted rules to bear in a variety of real-life situations. The system’s rules and benefits are no different for same-sex marriages and divorces, Mantell points out.

As for the divorced woman, not all will be eligible to receive benefits based on their ex-spouses’ work records, Mantell explains. That’s because, first off, there are basic criteria to be met; for example, the parties must have been married for at least 10 consecutive years.

In the interview, Mantell discusses financial advisors’ top question about women and Social Security and how the Windfall Elimination Provision, concerning public pensions, affects a divorced woman’s claim on her ex’s Social Security (bit of a surprise there).

In Mantell’s 30 years of focusing on retirement, she has spent more than 25 of them training financial advisors. She now teaches curriculum for the Investments & Wealth Institute’s Retirement Management Analyst designation, which she herself holds.

Of late, Mantell has been directing a great deal of effort toward the retirement needs of baby boomers and holds custom retirement-income planning workshops for advisors and their clients. Boomer Retirement Briefs is her popular blog.

ThinkAdvisor recently interviewed Mantell, speaking by phone from her Plymouth, Mass., office. She says that many women “freeze” when faced with making that crucial Social Security claiming decision. So, in her book, she advises readers to seek FAs who are experts on Social Security and building retirement income plans. Likely, they won’t be the same ones “who helped you build your nest egg,” she argues.

Here are highlights of our conversation:

THINKADVISOR: What’s a big Social Security pitfall for women?

MARCIA MANTELL: They think that if they claim at 62, they’re going to get a bump-up at full retirement age. I hate to be the bad guy — but I’m sorry, ladies, there’s no bumping up. When I tell them that at my presentations, it makes them mad.

What’s the biggest Social Security pitfall for divorced women?

The No. 1 misconception is that divorced women think they’ll get more than one benefit — their own and half of their ex-husband’s. No, you get half of his or yours, whichever benefit is higher. When I told this to one woman, it was like I punched her. But then she realized it’s an either-or situation and said, “Oh, my God, that’s all I’m going to get!”

Under what circumstances is a woman eligible to receive benefits on her ex-husband’s Social Security record?

Broadly, there are four rules: You had to be married for 10 consecutive years or longer. You each have had to reach age 62. You need to have been divorced for two years or longer, or the ex-husband already has to be claiming. The fourth rule is that the ex-wife has not remarried.

So is it correct that if a divorced woman remarries, she can claim only on her current spouse’s Social Security?

Correct. From a Social Security vantage point, you can’t be both an ex-wife and a current wife. Social Security looks at you in one of four ways: Single, married, widowed or divorced — even though you may be in multiple buckets.

In the situation you just asked about, you don’t get to choose while both men are living. But, eventually, if you’re the last person standing among the three, you can choose the higher of your current husband’s survivor benefit or your ex-husband’s benefit.

But what if the woman and her second husband divorce?

She gets a choice, as long as she meets the rules. Johnny Carson [and his three divorces] is a good example of this. He was married to his first wife [Jody] for more than 10 years; his second wife [Joanne] for nine years; third wife [Joanna] for more than 10 and fourth wife [Alexis] for more than 10 [till his death].

The surviving spouse [Alexis] got his benefit amount; wives one and three also got survivor ex-spouse benefits. But the woman he was married to for only nine years, his second wife [Joanne], didn’t claim on him at all.

Generally speaking, what if a first wife has her own Social Security benefits?

For example, if she stayed home with the kids and worked only part time, she would be eligible for, say, $750 a month on her own — plus she’ll get a spousal top-up of $250, which adds to $1,000 [half her husband’s primary benefit amount].

If, however, she went out and became a star in her career and eligible for, say, $2,300 a month, she’s not eligible on the work record of her ex-husband.

Is it news to men that their ex-wives can claim on their Social Security record?

Yes. At my presentations, they say, “Wait a minute — how much is my Social Security going to be docked?” They think the benefits will be split, and they’ll lose out.

No, no. They won’t lose any of their benefits. The ex-wife also gets to claim on his record, or else she’ll get her own higher amount, if that’s the case.

Suppose the first wife is claiming on that husband’s record. Can the woman he’s currently married to also claim on it?

Yes. Social Security says that multiple people are eligible to claim on one worker’s record. But you can get only one benefit and one at a time.

In the scenario we just discussed, do the benefits get divided up between the wife and the ex-wife?

No. If the current wife is a dependent spouse and has no Social Security of her own, she’ll get half of the husband’s full benefit. If wife No. 1 is unmarried now and meets all the other rules, she’s eligible for the same amount off his record — that is, the ex-spouse benefit, or half his [full] primary insurance amount [PIA].

A woman doesn’t need her ex-husband’s permission or to even let him know that she’s applying to claim on his Social Security record, you write. Surprising.

This is a really big point because sometimes the divorce occurred 30 years ago, and the ex-wife hasn’t kept track of the guy; so she thinks, how am I going to find him? You don’t find him. Just find your divorce decree. That’s all you need. It has all the information on it that Social Security needs.

It’s not valid if, in a divorce agreement, one spouse waives rights to the Social Security benefits of the other, you write. Please explain.

That was a tactic that was often used but probably not too much now: The wife [typically] was asked to waive rights to the husband’s Social Security — and she just signed.

That’s not enforceable. If any woman out there did that, even if she’s 90 now, and didn’t claim on her ex-husband, she should absolutely go to the Social Security Administration to see if there’s back pay owed to her.

Does a woman who’s divorced from a man who receives a public pension that’s subject to the Windfall Elimination Provision, which lowers Social Security benefits, have a right to claim any of those benefits?

Her benefit will be calculated on his PIA, which is lower because he’s receiving a public pension. Her ex-spouse benefits will therefore be lower too.

However, this reduction applies only while the ex-husband is alive because it doesn’t affect survivor benefits. So if he dies before she does, she can have the Social Security Administration recalculate her benefits as a surviving ex-wife. That will be made on his original PIA, not on the lower WEP-PIA.

In your book, you also suggest that women should visit the Social Security office for information that’s specific to their situation. But my understanding is that the agents frequently fail to provide accurate information.

They don’t, not all the time, especially regarding widows: They don’t understand that there are two buckets of money: the spousal benefit and the survivor benefit. Each has different rules; and, most importantly, as the widow you can switch between them.

The agents don’t get this. They’ve giving women all kinds of terrible information. I get emails from advisors saying, “A widow [client] who is 60 wants to claim her survivor benefits and let her own benefits grow till she’s 70. Social Security told her she can’t do that.” I told him, “Oh yes, she can!”

What do advisors ask you about most when it comes to Social Security?

The big question almost always revolves around widows: Can they claim survivor benefits first and then their own [as discussed above], or vice-versa.

The other big question is that advisors are skeptical that the Social Security Trust Fund [won’t run out of money]. I don’t think they’re rightly skeptical. I encourage them to read the Trustees Report.

Social Security wasn’t designed as a welfare program, you note in your book. How was it in fact designed?

It was specifically framed, in the 1930s, to be a pay-in to get a payout. I call it pay to play.

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