Social Security Benefits for an Ex-Spouse

Image shows a few people at a social security office. text reads: "Am I entitled to my ex-spouse's social security benefits? You must be single (remarried ex-spouses are not eligible); Both you and your ex-spouse must be at least 62; your marriage must have lasted at least 10 years; your divorce must have been finalized at least two years ago"

Image by Britney Willson © The Balance 2020

If you are age 62 or older, have a past marriage that lasted at least 10 years, and have not remarried, you might be able to collect Social Security benefits based on your former spouse's earnings record. If you have not had a lot of qualifying earnings during your life, this rule could put more money in your pocket.

Learn more about claiming based on your ex-spouse's earnings and what else you need to know.

Who Is Eligible?

You must still be single to claim benefits based on your ex-spouse's earnings record. Your ex-spouse's current marital status has no impact.

If you have remarried, you cannot claim your ex's benefits. If you get married while you are receiving benefits, your eligibility will come to an end. But if this later marriage ends because of your spouse's death, divorce, or annulment, you may be able to start or resume claiming benefits from your ex-spouse.

Your ex-spouse must have worked long enough to be eligible for Social Security. They also must be at least 62 years old. Your ex does not need to have applied to receive Social Security. Your divorce must have been finalized at least two years ago.

Social Security Benefits

The maximum amount of Social Security benefits you can receive based on an ex-spouse's record is 50% of what your ex-spouse would get at their full retirement age. This varies based on their year of birth. The spousal benefit amount is further decreased if you file before you reach your own full retirement age.

If you have an idea of what your ex-spouse earned and their date of birth, you can use a Social Security calculator to predict the benefit amount. The only way to find out for sure is to ask your ex-spouse what their primary insurance amount (PIA) is.

The PIA is the benefit amount they would receive at their full retirement age.

Note

If you collect benefits based on your ex-spouse's record, it does not reduce the amount your ex-spouse receives. It also does not impact their current spouse, if they have one. And if your ex-spouse has one or more other ex-spouses who have also not remarried, that will not reduce your benefits.

When you file for benefits, the Social Security Administration gives you the larger of your own benefit or an ex-spousal (or spousal) benefit. You cannot choose which one to receive.

If you were born before January 2, 1954, and you wait until full retirement age to file, you have the option to file a restricted application. That way, you receive only the ex-spousal benefit. You can let your own benefit amount continue racking up delayed retirement credits until you reach age 70.

When you reach age 70, you can switch to your own benefit amount if that's larger than the ex-spousal amount. This option is not available if you file before you reach your full retirement age or if you were born on or after January 2, 1954.

If your ex-spouse is younger than you, you can collect your own benefit when you become eligible. Then, you can switch to theirs once they become eligible.

Survivors Benefits Explained

If your ex-spouse has died, you may collect survivor's benefits. These follow different rules than those for a living ex-spouse. You can apply for benefits as early as age 60. If you remarry after you reach age 60, or age 50 if you are disabled, you will still be able to claim these benefits.

If you are disabled, and your ex-spouse has died, you can begin receiving survivors benefits if you're between the ages of 50 and 59. Your disability also must have started before or within seven years of your ex's death.

The rules vary slightly when it comes to children. If you are caring for a child who is under age 16 or disabled, and they are the child of your ex-spouse, you can claim survivor's benefits, even if you weren't married for at least 10 years. In that instance, claiming for your child would reduce the benefits of other people who could receive them, based on a relationship with your ex.

The percentage of your deceased ex-spouse's benefit amount you would receive depends on your age and other factors:

  • If you are of full retirement age or older, you would receive 100%.
  • If you are age 60 or older but not yet of full retirement age, you would receive 71.5% to 99%.
  • If are 50 to 59 years old and disabled, you would receive 71.5%.
  • If you are caring for your ex-spouse's child who is disabled or under the age of 16, you would receive 75%, no matter your age.

What About Unmarried Children?

An unmarried child of the deceased may be able to receive benefits if one of the following applies:

  • They are younger than 18 years of age; or, they are up to age 19, if they are a full-time student in an elementary or secondary school.
  • They are age 18 or older with a disability that began before the age of 22.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What percentage of Social Security can an ex-spouse claim?

 Even if you are divorced, you are eligible for up to 50% of your ex-spouse's benefits as long as you meet the qualifications described above. If you qualify for your ex's benefits and your own, you can claim the higher amount.

If I use my own Social Security benefits now, will I be able to claim my ex-spouse's benefits later?

As long as your ex-spouse isn't currently receiving benefits, then you can claim your own and eventually switch to spousal benefits when your ex-spouse files for Social Security. When you file for benefits after your ex, you'll be subject to the 'deemed filing rule,' which will grant you the higher of the two benefits.