Social Security Benefits for Ex-Spouses

Social Security Benefits for Ex-Spouses

Understanding Whether You’re Eligible to Benefits Based on Your Ex’s Earnings Record

Social Security Benefits for Ex-Spouses
Monday, 28 December 2020

Understanding the ins and outs of Social Security benefits can be a challenge, especially when it comes to special considerations like divorce and Social Security benefits for ex-spouses. If you are 62 or older and had a previous marriage that lasted at least ten years, and you have not remarried, it’s possible you are eligible to collect Social Security benefits based upon your ex-spouse’s earnings record. This rule can be a lifesaver if you don’t have a lot of qualifying earnings of your own, as it can put additional money in your pocket on a monthly basis.

Here’s what you need to know:

Who is Eligible?

As mentioned above, in order to qualify for benefits from your ex-spouse, you must be unmarried. Whether or not your ex-spouse has remarried does not affect your eligibility.

If you’ve remarried, the rule is cut and dry: you are not eligible to claim your ex-spouse’s benefits. If you get married while you’re receiving such benefits, your eligibility will end – along with your benefit payments. It should be noted, however, that you may be able to resume claiming your ex’s benefits if your current marriage ends due to divorce, annulment, or spousal death.

Another consideration is your ex-spouse’s earning record. He or she must have worked long enough to be eligible for Social Security themselves, and they must be at least 62 in order to qualify. You do not have to wait for your ex-spouse to file for benefits; however, your divorce must have been finalized more than two years ago for you to be eligible.


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How Do These Benefits Work?

There are multiple Social Security regulations that impact your benefit amount, but the maximum you can receive based on your ex-spouse’s record is 50 percent of what they would receive at their full retirement age (which is referred to as FRA and varies based upon the year they were born). Your benefit will be impacted by the age at which you apply to receive your ex-spousal benefits. You can apply at age 62 at the earliest but waiting until your own FRA ensures you’ll maximize your benefit.

There is a Social Security calculator available on the SSA website to help you estimate your benefit amount, which is important to do before you file for benefits, as you may find that waiting a year or more drastically increases your monthly payments. While you can apply estimates to the calculator, the most effective way to use it is to input your ex-spouse’s PIA – Primary Insurance Amount. The PIA is the benefit they would receive at their FRA, but the only way for you to know this number is to ask your ex.

Collecting benefits based on your ex’s record does not reduce his or her benefits, or the benefits of their current spouse if they have remarried. Also of note, if your ex-spouse has other ex-spouses who have not remarried, it won’t reduce the number of benefits you’re eligible for either.

Ex-Spousal Benefits vs Your Own Benefits

Many people have their own Social Security earnings record and are entitled to benefits on their own. In this case, the Social Security Administration will automatically give you the larger benefit amount. However, you cannot collect both your own benefits and those based on your ex’s earnings record. This rule is automatic, and you do not get to choose which benefits you collect.

If you happen to be younger than your ex-spouse, you may begin collecting your own benefit when you reach your own eligibility, then switch to collecting theirs once they become eligible if it is a larger benefit amount.

One caveat that previously applied to those reaching FRA prior to 2020 was that, if you were born before January 2, 1954, and you wait until FRA to file for benefits, you had the option to file something called a restricted application. This would allow you to receive your ex-spousal benefit while continuing to let your own benefits grow until age 70. However, this is no longer an available strategy.


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Understanding Survivor Benefits

If your ex-spouse is deceased, you may be eligible for Social Security survivor benefits. These benefits are subject to different rules than those applying to your living ex-spouse. With survivor benefits, you can apply as early as age 60. If you remarry sometime after that age, will remain eligible for survivor benefits. If you are disabled and your ex-spouse has died, you can actually qualify for survivor benefits even earlier – between the ages of 50-59 – if your disability began before your ex’s death or within seven years of it.

In a scenario where you are caring for a child under the age of 16, or who is disabled, and the child is either the natural or legally adopted child of your ex-spouse, you can claim survivor benefits even if the marriage lasted fewer than ten years. In this case, claiming benefits on behalf of your child does reduce the benefits of others who might claim Social Security benefits based on your ex-spouse’s earnings, such as another ex-spouse. An unmarried child of your ex-spouse is eligible for benefits in two circumstances: Firstly, if they are younger than 18 (or younger than 19 if they are a full-time student in elementary or secondary school) and, secondly if they are 18 or older and suffering from a disability that began before age 22.

Final Notes on Social Security Benefits for Ex-Spouses

As you can see, there are many varying circumstances in which you might be eligible to receive benefits based on your ex-spouse’s earnings. However, there are also many factors that impact your eligibility, as well as your potential benefit amount.

If you plan to file for benefits based on your ex’s earnings record, make sure you do your research ahead of time and understand what it means for your present and future finances.

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