How Old Does My Ex Have to Be So I Can Collect a Spousal Benefit?

When collecting Social Security on an ex, it's your age that matters more.

Women filing an ex spousal benefit.
••• Tom Merton

Once you are divorced, your age is more important than your ex's age when looking at Social Security benefits. Here's how it works.

How Old Does My Ex Have to Be?

This question was emailed to me, "Hi, I have a question about benefits on my ex-spouse’s Social Security. I will be 66 in June. He is one year younger than me. We were married for 19 years, and have been divorced for 20. I did not re-marry. His earnings far exceed mine. Every article I read is unclear on whether he has to be 66 (full retirement age before I can collect half of his) or 62. Can I collect 30% for one year, while he is 65 to 66, then collect the 50% as soon as he turns 66? - K"


Before I answer the question, a bit of background for people who aren't aware. Social Security entitles you to spousal benefits, even if you're divorced. As long as you're not remarried and your marriage lasted at least 10 years and your spouse is entitled to benefits, you're probably eligible. There's no double dipping--you can't get your own benefit and also a spousal benefit but you get the higher of the 2. If you remarry your spousal benefits will most likely end.

Now, back to the question. The answer has several parts.

Part 1: This person can collect a spousal benefit now, even though their ex is not 66 yet.

You can collect a spousal benefit as long as you are 62, and as long as your spouse is 62 – even if your ex has not filed for their own benefits yet. I answer this in item 6 of my 10 Social Security Facts About Benefits for an Ex Spouse article as follows, “Your ex-spouse does not have to file for their own Social Security benefits for you to be eligible to receive a benefit based on their record, but they have to be eligible for those benefits. (They must be at least age 62, the earliest age you become eligible for your social security retirement benefits.)”

The next part of the question asks, “Can I collect 30% for one year, while he is 65 to 66, then collect the 50% as soon as he turns 66?”

Answer Part 2: No, it doesn’t work that way. The reduction in benefits is based on your full retirement age, not your spouse's. Which is good news in this case.

If you collect a spousal benefit while you are 66 and your spouse is 65, believe it or not, you will get the full 50% spousal benefit because you have reached your full retirement age. If your ex-spouse were only 62 and you were 66, you would still get the full 50% spousal benefit.  Before you do this you may want to consider one other option.

Since you have reached your full retirement age, if you were born on or before January 1, 1954, you may want to consider a strategy where you file a restricted application for a spousal benefit (you are restricting the application so you are only applying for spousal.) You can only file this type of restricted application if you have reached your full retirement age.  Then you will switch to your own benefit when you reach 70.

By filing a restricted application your own benefit will continue to accumulate delayed retirement credits until you reach age 70. This strategy might work for you if your age 70 benefit will be higher than your age 66 spousal benefit, as it would allow you to collect the spousal benefit for 4 years before you switch to your own benefit. Due to new Social Security laws passed in November 2015, this restricted application option is not available if you were born on or after January 2, 1954.

Note: if you file before you reach your own full retirement age, regardless of your date of birth this switching strategy does not work as you cannot file a restricted application prior to reaching full retirement age.