Social Security Facts About Benefits for an Ex-Spouse

Ex wife discussing Social Security with her former husband
Have an ex-spouse? If you were married over ten years you may be eligible for Social Security spousal benefits. David Seed Photography/ Photographer's Choice/ Getty Images

You may be surprised to find out that if you have a previous marriage that lasted at least ten years, you may be eligible to collect a spousal benefit based on your former spouse's Social Security earnings record. If you were born on or before January 1, 1954, or if you have not had a lot of Social Security qualifying earnings over your life time, this rule could put more money in your pocket. Here are some facts you should know about benefits based on a former marriage.

  • 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. (Full retirement age varies based on the year you were born.) This spousal benefit amount is further reduced if you file before you reach your own full retirement age.
  • You cannot collect on a living ex-spouse's Social Security benefit if you are re-married. (You can collect on a deceased ex-spouse's record if your remarriage occurred after you reached age 60.)
  • If you collect on an ex-spouse's Social Security benefit and get remarried, benefits based on your ex-spouse's record will stop.
  • You must be married for at least one year to a new spouse before you can file an application for spousal benefits based on their record.
  • If you know approximately what your ex-spouse earned, and their date of birth, you can use a Social Security calculator to estimate their benefit. The only way to find out for sure what your Social Security benefit based on your ex-spouse's record would be is to ask them what their primary insurance amount is. Primary insurance amount, or PIA, is the benefit amount they would receive at their full retirement age. If you call Social Security to find out, they cannot tell you.
  • 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. (This means they must have worked enough to be eligible for Social Security and they must be at least age 62, which is the earliest age you become eligible for Social Security retirement benefits.
  • If an ex-spouse collects benefits based on your record it does not in any way reduce your benefits or your current family's benefits. If you file based on an ex's record it does not reduce their benefits or the benefits of any current spouse they may have.
  • When you file for benefits, if you were born on or after January 2, 1954, Social Security automatically gives you the larger of your own benefit, or a spousal (or ex-spousal) benefit. You cannot choose which to get unless you are a widow or widower - then special rules apply. 
  • If you were born on or before January 1, 1954, and you wait until full retirement age to file, you have the option to file a restricted application so that you only receive the ex-spousal benefit while letting your own benefit amount continue to accumulate delayed retirement credits from your full retirement age to your age 70. Then when you reach 70 you can switch over to your own benefit amount. This restricted application option is not available if you file before your full retirement age and, due to new Social Security laws, it is not available if you were born on or after January 2, 1954.
  • If your ex-spouse is younger than you, you can collect your own benefit first (because they have not yet reached age 62 so you are not yet eligible to collect on theirs) and then switch to collecting on theirs once you become eligible for theirs (which would be when they reach age 62). For example, suppose you are age 62 and your ex-spouse is 58. At 62 you could collect a benefit based on your record (but it would be reduced because you filed early) and then at age 66 (when your ex-spouse turns 62) switch to a benefit based on their record, although this would also be reduced because you filed early. This would only be to your benefit if your spousal benefit based on 50% of theirs (and further reduced because you filed early) was going to be higher than your benefit based on your own record. 

    One more thing to keep in mind - if you collect benefits of any type prior to reaching your full retirement age and you continue to work, if you earn more than the allowable Social Security earnings limit that year, you may owe some benefits back. Once you reach your full retirement age, that earnings limit no longer applies and you can make any amount and collect your benefits.