Social Security Options for Divorced Women

Social Security Has You Covered

A woman leans her chin against her fist and contemplates divorce.

LaylaBird / Getty Images 

Divorced women are an often-overlooked category of retirees who may find themselves in financial distress once they enter retirement.

According to the Social Security Administration, roughly 20% of divorced women age 65 or older live in poverty, compared to 18% of women who never married, and 15% of widowed women. Even worse, the older the divorced woman, the more likely she is to live in poverty. Studies show that 22% of divorced women over 80 live in poverty.

However, older women are more likely to be married or widowed rather than never married or divorced.

  • About 11% of women over the age of 65 are divorced.
  • Only 4% have never been married.
  • Forty-one percent of women over the age of 65 are widowed.

Women born in the 1960s or early 1970s are more likely to be divorced. However, since the 1980s, divorce rates have leveled off. According to Social Security, benefits for divorced women are predicted to decline because more women joined the workforce in the past handful of decades.

If you are a divorced woman, Social Security has options for you—even if you didn’t log decades of full-time employment.

Social Security Benefits

If you earned 40 Social Security credits, equal to 10 years of work, you’re eligible for Social Security benefits when you reach age 62. How much you receive is based on a complicated calculation, but in general, the higher your salary, the higher your monthly Social Security benefit. Also, the longer you wait to start receiving benefits, the larger your check will be.

Don’t begin taking benefits when you reach 62. If you’re able to live without Social Security until you reach full retirement age or longer, you will have more money later when you’re unable to work and may need it the most.

Ex-Spouse Benefits

You might be eligible to receive Social Security Benefits based on your ex-spouse’s earnings. First, you have to meet the following criteria:

  • You were married to your ex-spouse for at least 10 years
  • You’re age 62 or older
  • You are still unmarried
  • Your ex-spouse is eligible for Social Security benefits
  • Your own Social Security benefit amount is lower than what you receive based on your ex-spouse’s work

You are entitled to one-half of your ex-spouse’s full retirement amount, assuming you start receiving benefits at full retirement age. Even if your ex-spouse hasn’t applied for benefits, you can still receive benefits as long as the ex-spouse qualifies for benefits, and you have been divorced for at least two years.

Widow/Widower Benefits

Even as an ex-spouse, you may be eligible for benefits up to 100% of your deceased ex-spouse’s benefit amount—assuming you are at full retirement age—or you may receive reduced benefits as early as age 60. You must meet the same criteria as above to qualify.

It’s Confidential 

Most divorces leave behind some baggage. Some people may prefer to move on with their lives and have little contact with their ex-spouses. They also may not want the embarrassment of having their ex-spouse know they applied for benefits based on their earnings.

Social Security keeps your application for benefits 100% confidential. Since your ex-spouse’s benefit isn’t reduced because of your benefits, they will never know that you applied and received benefits unless you tell them.

Don’t worry, you won’t need to contact your ex-spouse for any of their financial paperwork, but you will need to come to your appointment with all of this information:

  • Birth certificate or other proof of birth
  • Proof of U.S. citizenship or lawful alien status if you were not born in the United States
  • U.S. military discharge paper(s) if you had military service before 1968
  • W-2 forms(s) and/or self-employment tax returns for last year
  • Final divorce decree, if applying as a divorced spouse
  • Marriage certificate

Read the document requirement list carefully and do what you can to gather the required documents before your visit. If you cannot, don’t delay your visit to Social Security to begin the process; they may be able to help you locate the necessary documents.

Key Takeaways

If you’re divorced and didn’t work during most of your marriage, you may find yourself financially unprepared for retirement. Fortunately, you likely qualify for ex-spouse benefits based on your ex-spouse’s earnings, even if the person has already passed away.

Don’t forget:

  • If you remarried, you’re no longer eligible.
  • If you did work and your benefit amount is higher, you won’t receive ex-spouse benefits. No double-dipping allowed.
  • Your ex-spouse will not know that you applied and received benefits unless you tell them. Their benefit amount is not reduced.