After a divorce, are you eligible for your ex's Social Security benefits?

Robert Powell
Special to USA TODAY
  • As a former spouse you can receive benefits based on your ex's work record.
  • But there are similarities and differences in the eligibility rules for regular spousal benefits and divorced spousal benefits.
  • You are also eligible for retirement benefits of your own.

If you’re among the hundreds of thousands of couples who get divorced each year you might wonder whether you’ll be eligible to collect spousal Social Security benefits on your ex's work record.

The answer: It depends.

“There are similarities and differences in the eligibility rules for regular spousal benefits and those for divorced spousal benefits, says Kurt Czarnowski, a principal with Czarnowski Consulting, a retirement planning firm.

But first, the rules.

You, the former spouse, can receive benefits based on your ex's record (even when they have remarried) if:

  • Your marriage lasted 10 years or longer.
  • You are unmarried.
  • You are 62 or older.
  • The benefit that you are entitled to receive based on your own work is less than the spousal benefit you would receive based on your ex-spouse's work.

  • You are entitled to Social Security retirement or disability benefits.

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Even if divorced, you may be eligible to collect spousal Social Security benefits on your ex's work record.

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Also worth knowing: If your ex has not applied for retirement benefits, but can qualify for them, you can receive benefits on the ex's record if you have been divorced for at least two continuous years.

And, if you are eligible for retirement benefits on your own record, Social Security will pay that amount first. But if your ex's benefit based on their record is higher, you will get an additional amount on your record so that the combination of benefits equals that higher amount.

Social security benefits

As for differences and similarities between regular spousal benefits and divorced spousal benefits, Czarnowski says the biggest similarity flows from the elimination of the old "claim some now; claim more later" strategy.

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You, the former spouse, can receive benefits based on your ex's record (even when they have remarried) if you meet certain requirements.

Spousal benefits and full retirement age

Under that strategy, someone who had reached full retirement age had the option of claiming a spousal or divorced spousal benefit and deferring collection of their own retirement benefit until a later point, Czarnowski says. 

Now, anyone born on Jan. 2, 1954, or later no longer has that option and must always take their own retirement benefit first. 

The Social Security Administration will today compare the person's full retirement age amount with 50% of the spouse's or ex-spouse's full retirement age amount, and if the person's own full retirement age amount exceeds 50% of the other, then the person collects solely based on their own work record, Czarnowski says. 

Spousal vs. divorced spousal benefits

Other eligibility rules are basically the same. But there are, however, a couple of notable differences between eligibility for spousal and divorced spousal benefits, the most significant being the duration of marriage requirement, Czarnowski says.

“For divorced spousal benefits to be paid, the marriage must have lasted at least 10 years, while there is only a one-year duration of marriage requirement which must be met before spousal benefits can be paid,” he says.

The other major difference is that spousal benefits cannot be paid unless the other member of the couple is actually collecting their own retirement benefit. 

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If you’re among the hundreds of thousands of couples who get divorced each year you might wonder whether you’ll be eligible to collect spousal Social Security benefits on your ex's work record.

“With divorced spousal benefits, though, payments can be made even if the ex has not yet started collecting, as long as both individuals are over the age of 62 and the divorce has been final for at least two years,” he says.

Czarnowski says it’s important to distinguish between benefits for a "divorced spouse," i.e., the ex is still alive, and benefits for what the Social Security Act refers to as a "surviving divorced spouse," i.e., the ex is now deceased. 

“Now, in both cases, the marriage needs to have lasted at least 10 years for benefits to be payable,” he says. “But in order to collect as a divorced spouse, the person cannot be married," and if they remarry, they lose eligibility immediately, he adds. "However, if someone is collecting as a surviving divorced spouse remarries, (they) will not lose eligibility as long as (they were) over the age of 60 at the time of the marriage.”

The payment rate for a surviving divorced spouse is the same as with regular survivor benefits. “

This means that the person will be eligible to collect 100% of the amount the deceased ex-spouse was collecting at the time of their death – or would have been collecting had they started receiving benefits the month of death,” Czarnowski says. “And, just as with regular survivor benefits, a surviving divorced spouse has the option of sequencing the collection, in other words collecting on one account and then switching to the other at a later date.”

Now, this is different from spousal or divorced spousal benefits where the person is always required to take their own benefit first, Czarnowski says. But what is not different is that the person collects one amount or the other at a time – not both at once. 

A final similarity, says Czarnowski, is that full retirement age is the same for a survivor as well as a surviving divorced spouse, but the full retirement age may be different than what it is for retirement benefits, says Czarnowski.

Robert Powell is the editor and publisher of Retirement Daily on TheStreet. Follow him on Twitter at @retirementpedia. Email questions about money to rpowell@allthingsretirement.com.