Social Security Strategies for Divorced Couples

You may be able to claim a benefit based on your ex-spouse's earnings.

Lots of things are lost when you get divorced: a shared home, mutual friends, old wedding photos. But here's something that may not disappear: your ability to base Social Security benefits on your spouse's earnings record. Or in this instance, your ex-spouse's earnings record. If you left the workforce to care for children or aging parents, or simply earned a lot less than your former spouse, this often overlooked Social Security provision could dramatically bump up your benefits.

In order to claim either spousal or survivor benefits, you must have been married for at least 10 years and not be entitled to a higher benefit based on your own record. In addition, you must be at least 62 and unmarried. You'll lose the spousal benefit if you remarry, although you can reapply if you get divorced again or your second spouse dies.

You can collect spousal benefits even if your ex hasn't applied for benefits, as long as he or she is at least 62 and you've been divorced for at least two years. You don't have to tell your ex that you're applying for benefits based on his or her record. In addition, your spousal benefits will have no effect on the benefits your ex -- or your ex's new husband or wife -- receives. You will, however, need to provide the Social Security Administration with a copy of your divorce decree, and it's helpful to have your ex's Social Security number, too.

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You can increase your lifetime benefits by delaying your claim. If you wait until you reach full retirement age, you'll be eligible for 50% of your ex's benefits at his or her full retirement age. You can apply earlier, but your benefits will be reduced by between 7% and 8% for each year before your full retirement age that you claim.

You may also qualify for survivor benefits. If your ex dies, you're eligible for 100% of his or her Social Security payout. Again, you must have been married for 10 years or more to qualify. However, remarriage won't affect your eligibility for survivor benefits as long as you're at least 60 years old, or 50 if you're totally disabled. You can switch back to your own benefits when you turn 70 if that would result in a higher payout.

Sandra Block
Senior Editor, Kiplinger's Personal Finance

Block joined Kiplinger in June 2012 from USA Today, where she was a reporter and personal finance columnist for more than 15 years. Prior to that, she worked for the Akron Beacon-Journal and Dow Jones Newswires. In 1993, she was a Knight-Bagehot fellow in economics and business journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She has a BA in communications from Bethany College in Bethany, W.Va.