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Dear Liz: You recently answered a question about divorced survivor benefits. Is the survivor benefit going to be 100% of what the deceased ex-spouse was receiving at death or 100% of the ex’s benefit at full retirement age? My ex-wife is 65, the marriage lasted 34 years, it’s been two years since our divorce and she’s planning to retire at her own full retirement age.

Answer: The last part of your question indicates you’re asking about divorced spousal benefits, not divorced survivor benefits … unless you’re reaching out from beyond the grave.

Here’s a quick primer. Spousal and divorced spousal benefits are available only while you, the primary worker, are still alive. Your ex could receive up to 50% of your benefit at full retirement age, assuming that benefit is greater than her own.

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The rules change once you’re dead. Should you die before your ex, she may qualify for divorced survivor benefits. Divorced survivor benefits, like regular survivor benefits, are based on what you were actually receiving or had earned at the time of your death. If you died at 69 before beginning to claim Social Security, for example, your benefit would have earned at least a couple years’ worth of delayed retirement credits. Your ex could qualify for 100% of that enhanced benefit if she applied for it at her own full retirement age.

Your ex also would have the option of starting divorced survivor benefits and then switching to her own larger benefit later, or vice versa. She also could remarry at age 60 or later and not lose her benefit. By contrast, spousal and divorced spousal benefits end with remarriage, and people typically can’t switch between those benefits and their own.

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