I received a panicked e-mail from a reader recently, asking if Social Security had changed the claiming rules for ex-spouses.
"A good friend of mine was just told by her local Social Security office that she cannot file for her ex-spouse's benefit when she turns 66," Joanne Busso wrote, explaining that her friend wanted to hold off filing for her own benefit until she is older, thereby allowing her individual benefit to increase for a few years.
"The Social Security representative told her that this is no longer allowed because 'things have changed,'" Ms. Busso wrote.
"But the [Social Security Administration] website still states that this is allowed," she wrote. "Are you aware of new laws that have eliminated the option of filing on an ex-spouse's earnings record at 66 to allow our own benefit to grow?"
I wasn't aware of any changes, but I said I would check with the SSA.
Nope. No changes.
"I'm not sure what happened at the local office, but we have not made any changes to this,” said SSA spokeswoman Kia Anderson.
She sent me a link on the ssa.gov website confirming that ex-spouses who were married for at least 10 years and who are unmarried can restrict their claim to spousal benefits if they wait until full retirement age to claim benefits. That allows their own retirement benefits to accrue delayed retirement credits up to 70.
Although the reader was relieved that no rules had been changed, the situation prompts a bigger question: What do you do when you get a wrong answer from an SSA representative?
Ms. Anderson suggests that you ask to speak to a supervisor.
You can also consult the SSA.gov website, which includes a treasure trove of information, including this page on benefits for divorced spouses.
The questions about rights of divorced spouses didn't stop there.
Tom, a financial adviser in Virginia, asked: "Can an ex who has remarried file for Social Security benefits on an ex-spouse's earning record?"
No, I replied. To collect on an ex-spouse you must be currently unmarried.
But, I added, if you are a surviving divorced spouse, you are still entitled to collect survivor benefits on your deceased former spouse's earnings record, as long as you wait until 60 or later to remarry.
Another reader asked what happens if you were married twice but are currently unmarried?
"Can you claim on either ex-spouse's Social Security or do you lose the ability to draw off the first spouse because you remarried, even though you divorced again?" Jeff asked.
You can use the earnings record of either ex-spouse as long as each marriage lasted at least 10 years and you are currently unmarried, I responded.
When it comes to claiming Social Security benefits, divorced spouses not only have all the rights of currently married couples, they have an additional benefit. You can claim benefits based on your ex-spouse's earning record even if he or she hasn't yet claimed benefits.
As long as you and your ex are at least 62, you can claim retirement benefits on the other's earnings record. But if you want to restrict your claim to spousal benefits only, you must wait until your full retirement age to claim.
For married couples, one spouse must either claim benefits or file and suspend to trigger benefits for a spouse.
That added benefit prompted Ed McFarlane, an investment adviser in Pennsylvania, to write to me with this observation: "I get the impression that a Social Security recipient is 'better off' being divorced. What is your take?"
No comment. But it is an astute observation.