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Bleeding hearts and bootstraps

Tom Margenau | Mar 15, 2012, 11:01 a.m.

Q: I was surprised by the woman who wrote to you and said that people living on a small amount of Social Security were just lazy. Let me share my story to help this callous woman understand why people like me don't get very much from Social Security.

Believe me, I am not lazy. I worked for quite a few years before I married my husband. Shortly after we were married, I withdrew all of my retirement savings to help him start a business, which eventually became very successful. I quit my job and worked for his business but never got compensated.

Just before our 10th anniversary, he divorced me to marry someone much younger and prettier. I was left with nothing. I've worked at a variety of jobs since then. Some were covered by Social Security, some were not.

I'm now 62 and can't get benefits from my non-Social Security jobs. I'm left with a small Social Security check of my own. I was married to my ex for nine years and 11 months. I know I must have been married 10 years to claim benefits from my ex-husband. But we lived together for several years before our marriage, and we were living in a common-law state.

I talked to someone at my local Social Security office about possibly claiming divorced wife's benefits from my ex, but she told me I'm not eligible. Do you think I can claim benefits? And if so, would I need a lawyer to do this?

A: Yes, I think you are eligible for divorced wife's benefits. But before I help you with that, I've got to comment on your story.

A couple of months ago, I wrote a column about a woman, who, like you, was living on a small amount of Social Security, primarily because of some bad experiences in her life. Her story brought out the bleeding-heart liberal in me, and I suggested different ways she might be able to get some extra benefits from Social Security.

Well, that triggered a backlash of emails from readers whose hearts definitely don't bleed. I call them the "bootstrap" crowd, as in, "You ought to be able to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and not rely on the government for help!" And the woman who sent the "They're just lazy" letter was typical of those folks.

I hope your letter helps people understand that not all of us are lucky in life and that some of us barely have any bootstraps to grab onto, let alone pull ourselves up by!

Anyway, let me offer you some advice about your potential claim for divorced wife's benefits. As you know, the rules do state that a divorced woman has to be married 10 years before she can claim benefits from her ex's Social Security account. But there are different ways to define "marriage." And if you live in a state that recognizes a common-law relationship, that can be just as legally valid as a traditional marriage.

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