If you’re divorced, you may think you can’t claim Social Security benefits earned by your spouse. In fact, two of the four most common and costly Social Security mistakes made have to do with people misunderstanding rules for divorcees. However, the Social Security Administration has made provisions for people who are divorced but who were married for at least 10 years to a worker who was eligible for benefits. For those who fit that description, the rules are largely the same as those for married couples, with some important differences.
Basic rules for divorced spouses
In order to receive benefits as an ex-spouse you must either remain unmarried until age 60, or your second marriage must have ended by death, divorce, or annulment. The rules for claiming benefits as an ex-spouse are slightly different if you’re claiming benefits as a person reaching retirement age versus as a survivor whose former spouse has died.
The rules also are different for those born before Jan. 2, 1954. If you were born before this date, you may be able to receive spousal benefits at full retirement age and delay your own retirement benefit until later. That option is not available for people filing for spousal benefits who were born after this date. If you were born after Jan. 2, 1954 and you file for one retirement benefit you automatically are considered to have filed for all retirement benefits.
The amount an ex-spouse receives depends on many factors including:
- Whether they’re filing for spousal or survivor benefits
- Their age when they file
- The benefit due the ex-spouse as an individual worker, separate from marriage-related benefits
- How much the former spouse earned
If one or more ex-spouses receive a benefit, that does not in any way reduce the amount that the worker or their current spouse or other dependents are eligible to receive.
How earnings are calculated
The Social Security administration measures benefit eligibility in terms of credits. Each year a worker can earn up to four credits. A credit equates to a certain amount of dollar earnings. In 2020, a person receives one credit per $1,410 in earnings.
Once someone has acquired 40 credits, they are eligible for Social Security retirement benefits. Workers may become eligible with fewer credits if they become disabled at a young age, or their survivors may receive benefits, even if they have fewer credits, if they die at a young age.
If you’re entitled to benefits on your own record, you will receive those benefits first. If your own benefit is larger than the benefit you would receive as an ex-spouse, you will receive no spousal benefit.
But if your benefit as an ex-spouse is larger, Social Security will increase your benefit to the larger amount. So, if your ex-spouse’s benefit would be $2,000 a month, you would be entitled to $1,000 a month as an ex-spouse. If your benefit as a worker is only $700 a month, Social Security will increase your benefit to $1,000 a month.
The maximum spousal benefit—for spouses or ex-spouses—is 50 percent of the worker’s benefit at full retirement. If your ex-spouse does not claim benefits until after full retirement—say age 70—they will receive delayed retirement credits, but your benefit will not increase.
If you claim benefits earlier than full retirement, the amount you receive will be permanently reduced. If you claim your benefit at age 62, instead of receiving 50 percent of your former spouse’s benefit, you will receive only about 35 percent of their benefit.
If you continue working, your benefit amount may also be impacted. If you file for benefits before full retirement age, and you are still working, a portion of your earnings will be exempt. For 2020, that portion is $18,240. For every $2 you earn above that amount, until the year of your retirement, Social Security will reduce your benefit by $1, although that reduction will be restored when you reach full retirement age. In this case, the path to maximizing Social Security and working may be to continue working, but claim later.
If your former spouse is eligible to receive their benefit but has not filed, you may still file if you have been divorced at least two full years.
As the former spouse of an earner who has died, you are eligible for survivor benefits at any age if a child of the deceased worker lives with you and is under age 16 or is disabled. Otherwise you may become eligible for survivor benefits at age 60, or age 50 if you are disabled. In all cases, you will only be eligible if you are not remarried—or if your subsequent marriage ended in death, divorce, or annulment.
If you claim your survivor benefit at full retirement age or older, you will generally get 100 percent of the worker’s basic benefit amount. If you claim your benefit after age 60, you will receive between 71 percent and 99 percent of the worker’s basic benefit amount. Marrying after age 60 will not impact your benefit.
Unlike with the spousal benefit, ex-spouses may apply for survivor benefits at age 60 or later and wait to apply for their own benefit until later—up to age 70. If you do so, you can earn delayed retirement credits on your own record. Working while receiving benefits may impact your benefit amount.
Applying for Social Security benefits and other resources
To apply for benefits as the ex-spouse of an earner and learn more about your benefits, go to the Social Security website. There are many resources available there to help you figure out the best strategy for applying for benefits, both your own and those you would receive as an ex-spouse, while factoring in issues such as your age, health, whether you’re working, and more.