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The Journey: How divorce and remarriage affect your Social Security benefits

McClathcy-Tribune Information Services

November 30, 2015


Q. I am 64 and work full time. I plan to claim Social Security benefits at 70. My ex-husband is 66 and we were married for 19 years. I remarried at 61. Am I entitled to some of my ex-husband’s benefits? Am I eligible for my current husband’s? Can I claim spousal benefits on my ex-husband’s record now and hold off on mine until age 70?

A. Generally, a subsequent remarriage takes away the ability to collect divorced spousal benefits, said Robin Brewton, vice president of client services at Social Security Solutions Inc. There are very limited exceptions. You could consider claiming a spousal benefit on your current husband’s work record when you reach full retirement age, letting you later switch to benefits on your own record at age 70, if that benefit would be higher after those four years of delayed retirement credits, Brewton said.

You can file for early, reduced spousal benefits now because you’ve been married longer than a year, Brewton said. But doing so before reaching full retirement age would mean you wouldn’t get to choose which benefit to take, and your benefit would automatically be calculated as a blend of the two, which would be a permanent reduction in your maximum benefit. Be aware that because of your age, you are among the last Social Security beneficiaries who are going to have the option to restrict your claim in this way. A recent congressional budget amendment killed off this strategy for anyone younger than 62 at the end of 2015. Also be aware that because you remarried after age 60, you may be entitled to divorced widow’s benefits when your first husband dies, so that could potentially affect your benefit calculation.

Q. My wife and I are in our late 70s, own a condo and have a little over $500,000 in assets, jointly owned in a revocable living trust. Nine months ago, my wife was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and seems to be deteriorating. My daughter suggested I change ownership of some assets so that, in the event my wife is institutionalized, I wouldn’t be left destitute. I’m familiar with Medicaid’s five-year look-back period. Are there any alternative strategies to pursue and would I lose complete control of our assets if I pursued them?

A. There are some planning steps to take in cases like these, said Mark Munson, an attorney with Wisconsin law firm Ruder Ware. Because Medicaid is a joint federal and state program, however, the rules can vary widely depending on where you live, so it’s important to hire a qualified estate-planning attorney to oversee your strategy, Munson said.

The National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and the National Elder Law Foundation maintain member directories and the latter certifies elder-law attorneys. Generally, however, you’ll want to learn your state’s current exemption amount for assets that can be retained by the "community" spouse (you) and still allow for your wife to qualify for Medicaid, Munson said.

The home you live in, a car and personal items are typically exempt assets as well, he said, so decide if there are home improvements or a mortgage payoff that makes sense for your situation. Finally, if there are remaining assets, you might look into a so-called Medicaid-compliant annuity, which could pay you income during your life in order to meet your own expenses and not thrust you onto public assistance as well, Munson said. Finally, he said, make sure you and the attorney plan for what would happen to your assets if you die first and your wife is on Medicaid.