When Martha Scoppa, a coordinator for senior services at the Sullivan County Human Services Agency in New York state, turned 60 a few years back, she inquired with the nearest Social Security office about whether she could collect survivor benefits on her ex-husband. He was a contractor who had been receiving disability payments because of debilitating arthritis before he died of cancer.

She was told no.

That answer was incorrect. She could have collected benefits under certain circumstances, but the flat negative led her to wrongly conclude she could never collect on her husband's account.


Fortunately, a knowledgeable friend told her she could and she checked with her financial advisor, Catherine Coombe Bender, who heads a brother/sister advisory, Coombe, Bender & Co., in nearby Wawarsing, N.Y. Bender confirmed that Scoppa could collect survivor benefits, since she was married 16 years before the divorce, well over the SSA's 10-year requirement.

Scoppa, who had been worried about how she would afford retirement, discovered that once she reaches full retirement age at 66, she can start collecting $1,538 a month in survivor benefits on her husband's account. Since she plans to keep working at her job at least until age 67, she can add the extra money to her retirement savings.

She plans to continue to collect that benefit until she reaches 70, she says, when she'll be able to switch and start receiving her own maximum benefit, currently predicted to be $1,778 a month. That's some $430 a month more than she would have received if she hadn't had her ex's account to draw on, and instead had to start collecting on her own account at retirement when she turns 67.

"Doing this, and waiting until I'm 70 to start collecting on my own account, instead of having to take my own benefit early, is going to make a big difference in my retirement income," she says, happily.


Scoppa is not alone in discovering that the information provided by Social Security workers can be incomplete, misleading or even factually incorrect.

Bender, Scoppa's advisors, says, "In my experience, clients who've gone to Social Security have gotten mixed results. In general they get the facts, but only to the exact question they ask. They don't get offered strategic information about benefits, and while some say they learned a lot, some aren't given the right answer."

Bender whose RIA firm, works with clients in a mostly rural part of upstate New York, agrees that the Social Security program's survivor benefit for divorced spouses like Scoppa -- including those whose ex-spouse has died -- can make a significant difference in their retirement prospects.

She urges people to get what information they can from the SSA, but to always check what they hear with an advisor before acting on it.

Dave Lindorff spent five years as a China correspondent for Businessweek, and has written for The Nation and Salon.com.

This story is part of a 30-day series on Social Security and retirement income strategies.