Social Security and Divorce: 8 Things You Should Know

Marriages end for all kinds of reasons, but if you’ve ever been through a divorce you might just be wondering how it’s going to affect your Social Security. Can you still receive benefits from your divorced spouse? If so then how much can you get?

Well lucky for you, I’m about to give you the skinny on Social Security and divorce. Here are eight things you might not know:

1. You don’t have to be married to collect spousal or survivor benefits—Yep, you just read that correctly. Divorced spouses can receive Social Security benefits based on their ex’s earning history for up to one half of their Social Security or disability benefits. That’s kind of a big deal, especially if your ex makes more than you. And this still holds true even if your ex has remarried. Also note that divorced spousal benefits are gender neutral, so both husbands and wives can reap the benefits of this.

2. You can qualify for divorced spousal benefits if

  • You are unmarried
  • You’re 62 years old or older
  • Your ex is entitled to Social Security retirement or disability benefits
  • Your ex’s benefit amount is higher than what you would receive based on your own work history

3. To qualify for divorce benefits, you must have been married for at least 10 years—If you were married for nine years and nine months, I’m afraid you don’t make the cut. But if you passed the 10-year mark, you’re golden. Just be aware that if you’ve remarried since your divorce, your spousal benefits switch to your new partner after one year. They will switch back to your ex only if your current marriage ends from death, divorce, or annulment.

4. If you do decide to collect on your ex’s earnings, it won’t impact the size of their benefits or their new spouse’s benefits—You can breathe a huge sigh of relief over this one. In fact you don’t even have to tell your ex that you’re collecting benefits on their record. As long as you have the necessary marriage certificates, divorce decrees, and your ex’s Social Security number, the SSA will not notify them that you are receiving benefits. If you don’t know your ex’s Social Security number, you can provide their birth date, place of birth and parents’ names instead.

5. If you were married twice for more than 10 years, you can choose the highest earning—If you’ve had multiple marriages that match the 10-year eligibility marker and have since moved on, you have the option to choose the highest set of benefits. Score. This also goes the other way around: your ex could be supporting multiple exes with their earnings history as long as each party was married for more than 10 years.

6. You can claim whichever earning history is higher: yours, your ex’s, or both—Yes, there are cases where you can actually claim both your own benefits and your ex’s to maximize your earnings. If you begin using your divorced spousal benefit at age 66, you can then switch to your own benefits at age 70 when the earnings go up significantly. This tactic is also known as “restricted filing.” Keep in mind that this option only works if you wait to claim benefits until full retirement age.

7. You don’t have to wait for your ex to file for benefits—If you and your ex are both at least 62 and you’ve been divorced for at least two years, you can choose to file independent of your ex. It won’t affect their benefits at all.

8. Your ex cannot cut you off from Social Security benefits—Even if you have a less than amicable relationship with your ex, there’s no need to worry that you won’t be able to use their earning history for Social Security reasons. As long as you meet the conditions above, you’ve earned it.

There you have it! Divorce obviously adds some complexity to Social Security, and there are always exceptions to every rule. So if you have more questions, contact the SSA or seek out financial counsel from a professional. And remember even for divorced spousal benefits you still have to apply. Check out the SSA’s website to find out how.