Social Security can be confusing. But we’re here to help you navigate the path forward.
Even if you’re divorced, as long as you were married to your ex for at least 10 years, you could be eligible for divorced spousal benefits. Our checklist simplifies what you’re owed and how to apply for Social Security retirement benefits.
Social Security: Application Checklist
#1 Confirm eligibility for divorced spousal benefits
Whether you qualify for your ex’s benefit depends on your age, how long you were married, and whether you remarried. Here are the qualifications:
- You must be at least 62
- You and your ex must have been married at least 10 years
- You must be currently unmarried (Even if you did remarry, as long as that marriage has ended, you can still be eligible. Note that you can collect on either spouse’s record – but not both.)
- If your ex is eligible for his own benefits but not yet filed, you must have been divorced at least 2 continuous years
- The benefit based on your own work record must be less than the spousal benefit from your ex
You can be eligible for up to 50% of your ex’s benefits. But the only way to find out what you may be owed is either asking your ex, or asking the Social Security Administration (SSA) when you yourself become eligible for benefits. If you and your ex do not speak, you’ll have to wait until you’re eligible for benefits to find out from the SSA what they are owed.
However, the good news is that your ex is not involved when it comes to you collecting spousal benefits. There is no “permission” needed from them. Whether they are remarried or not has no impact on your benefits. Your ex doesn’t even have to have filed for the benefits themself (as long as they are at least 62 and eligible for Social Security).
#2 Calculate the best age to claim Social Security spousal & retirement benefits
When you file for Social Security benefits, you will be applying for both retirement benefits and spousal benefits at the same time. You can’t choose which one to receive.
(Note: the only exception to this is if you were born before January 2, 1954 and you wait until Full Retirement Age to file. In that case, you would have the option to file a restricted application and receive a spousal benefit while waiting to claim your own benefit to age 70.)
To determine when to start claiming your retirement and spousal benefits, you first need to know your Full Retirement Age:
Note that you can claim retirement benefits as early as age 62, but if you claim before your Full Retirement Age, your monthly benefits will be lower.
If you claim later than Full Retirement Age, your benefits will be higher. And if you are married or divorced, the age you claim also impacts your spousal benefits.
#3 Pick the right date to apply
While application processing times are quicker than they were in the past, particularly with the online application, it can still take several weeks to have your application confirmed. It can take longer if there’s a mistake in your application.
Luckily, the Social Security Administration (SSA) allows you to apply up to four months in advance of when you want to start collecting benefits (three months if you plan to file at the minimum age of 62). For that reason, we suggest you circle a day 3-4 months in anticipation to submit your application.
#4 Choose the right method to apply
There are three ways to apply for Social Security retirement benefits:
- Online on the Social Security Administration website
- By phone at 1-800-772-1213
- In person at a Social Security office near you
We recommend applying online, which is likely the easiest and in many cases has the fastest turnaround time.
Note that for those applying for survivor benefits (widows benefits), the only options are to do so over the phone or to go into an office. If you go into an office, we suggest making an appointment to avoid long wait times.
#5 Gather necessary documents for your application
We recommend gathering the necessary documents together before you apply for Social Security. The SSA can ask for the following information and documents:
- If you were born outside the country, the name of your birth country at the time of your birth
- Your citizen status; if you are not a citizen, you should have your Permanent Resident Card number
- Whether you have used any other Social Security number
- Whether you or anyone else has ever filed for Social Security benefits, Medicare or Supplemental Security Income on your behalf; if so, you should have information on whose Social Security record you applied
- Your Social Security card
- Your original birth certificate, or a certified copy
- Name of ex-spouse (if the marriage lasted more than 10 years or ended in death)
- Name of current spouse (if applicable)
- Spouse(s) date of birth and Social Security number (optional). If you don’t have this info, don’t worry: you can instead provide your ex’s name, date, place of birth, and parents’ names.
- Beginning and ending dates of marriage(s) (SimplyWise tip: if you are divorced, you will need a certified copy of the official divorce decree — not just a photocopy. You can usually get a certified copy of the decree from the courthouse in the court clerk’s office. Some states will have divorce decrees in the county clerk’s office, so check with your state.)
- Names and dates of birth for children who either i) are under age 18 and unmarried, ii) became disabled prior to the age of 22, or iii) are aged 18 to 19 and attending secondary school full time
If you’re not self-employed:
- Earnings for current year and prior two years (SimplyWise tip: If you are going to apply online, you can find this inside your my Social Security account.)
- Employer name
- Employment start and end dates
- Whether you or your spouse have ever worked for the railroad industry
- Whether you qualified or expect to receive a pension or annuity based on your own employment with the Federal government of the U.S. or one of its states or local subdivisions
If you are self-employed:
- Business type
- Total net income
Direct deposit information
- Account type
- Account number
- Bank routing number
#6 Create a “my Social Security account”
You will need a my Social Security account to apply for Social Security benefits online. But even if you apply for retirement benefits over the phone or in person, having a my Social Security account can still make things easier. The SSA’s online account is free, and allows you to set up your direct deposit to receive benefits, check your application status, request a new Social Security card, and more.
When you’re ready, head to the my Social Security account website and click “Create an Account”. When you reach the next screen, click again on “Create New Account”.
After agreeing to the Terms of Service, you will be asked to fill in personal information, such as your:
- Social Security number
- Phone number
- Email address
SimplyWise tip: Make sure to enter the correct information, as you will receive a security code to your phone or email address every time you attempt to log in.
Additionally, you may be prompted to answer questions about your credit history or your history of addresses or phone numbers in order to verify your identity. You will have to create a username and password, which you can use to log back into your account at any time.
Note that you can also use your account to:
- View your Social Security benefit estimate
- Review your earnings history (SimplyWise tip: review carefully and notify the SSA if you find any discrepancies.)
- Request a new Social Security card
- Change your contact information (phone # or address)
- Set up / change your direct deposit to receive benefits
#7 Submit application
3. Follow the instructions on the screen to fill out the application (SimplyWise tip: Write down the application number you are given near the beginning of the process and keep it in a safe place, in case you need to refer to it later.)
4. When you get to the section about when you want to receive your benefits, edit it to the date of your choosing (SimplyWise tip: It will be set to the earliest possible date, so if that is not what you want, make sure to adjust it.)
5. When you have responded to all of the questions, you will see a summary of your answers; review them critically and if necessary, click “edit” to make alterations
6. Give your digital “signature” to complete and submit the application
Applying by phone
1. Be sure of your claiming strategy (SimplyWise tip: The agent helping you with your call will only be able to assist you with application and process questions.)
2. Clear a few hours on your schedule; we estimate that the application itself will take around 30 minutes, but there may be a wait time (SimplyWise tip: Call volumes are higher at the beginning of the month and the beginning of each week, so you may want to avoid those days if possible.)
3. Have the materials listed above on hand
4. Call the SSA at 1-800-772-1213 anytime from 8:00am – 5:30 pm on Monday through Friday (as long as it’s not a holiday)
5. When the time comes, be clear to the representative the date at which you intend to claim; otherwise, the earliest date possible will be selected for you
6. Confirm to the agent your intent to submit the application; this will count as your “signature”
Applying in person
1. Be sure of your claiming strategy
2. Call the SSA to schedule an appointment at 1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778) Monday through Friday, 8:00am – 5:30 pm (as long as it’s not a holiday). (SimplyWise tip: when you go in, budget a few hours, since you may have trouble finding parking and the office may be busier than expected.)
3. Gather the materials listed above and bring with you to the Social Security office
4. When the time comes, be clear to the representative the date at which you intend to claim; otherwise, the earliest date possible will be selected for you
5. Confirm to the agent your intent to submit the application; this will count as your “signature”
#8 Check application status
Once you have applied for Social Security retirement benefits, you can check the status of your application: online, by phone, or in person. (SimplyWise tip: Checking online through a my Social Security account is typically the easiest way to get your update.)
Check your Social Security application status online
To check your application status online, you must either have (or create) a my Social Security account. You can login there and check the Status of Your Application online.
Your application status online will show:
- Your Re-entry number for pending online benefit application or online appeal that has not been submitted;
- The date the SSA received your application or appeal;
- Scheduled Hearing date and time;
- Current claim or appeal location including the address of the office processing your application; and
- If a decision has been made.
Check your Social Security application status by phone
To check your application status by phone, call the SSA at 1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778). Their hours are Monday through Friday, 8:00am – 5:30 pm. (SimplyWise tip: Call volumes are higher at the beginning of the month and the beginning of each week, so you may want to avoid those days if possible)
Check your Social Security application status in person
To check your application status in person, locate your nearest office.
#9 Update direct deposit information or address (as necessary)
Social Security needs your address to send you communications and information on Medicare, among other things. So it’s important to be sure they have your current details on file.
If you need to change either your address or the bank account where your Social Security benefits are deposited, you can change and update your information online, by phone, or in person. (SimplyWise tip: Making changes online through a my Social Security account is typically easiest.)
Change your info with Social Security online
To make the changes online, you must either have (or create) a my Social Security account. If you already receive benefits (retirement, survivors, or disability) and you have a bank account, you can start or update your direct deposit by using the My Profile Tab in my Social Security. In addition, you can decide when your change will take effect.
Change your info with Social Security by phone
To make the changes by phone, call the SSA at 1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778). Their hours are Monday through Friday, 8:00am – 5:30 pm. (SimplyWise tip: Call volumes are higher at the beginning of the month and the beginning of each week, so you may want to avoid those days if possible.)
Change your info with Social Security in person
To make the changes in person, locate your nearest office.