retirement

Claim a Benefit From an Ex-Spouse

The marriage may be over, but you could still be entitled to Social Security off your ex's record.

Breaking up is hard to do, but you and your ex-spouse could end up with a lifelong connection: your ex's Social Security benefits. If you were married at least ten years, you could be eligible for a spousal or a survivor benefit based on your former spouse's earnings record.

And if you've been married and divorced more than once, there is a silver lining among the dark clouds of unsuccessful matrimony. You can choose the highest spousal or survivor benefit of your ex-spouses.

As with married couples, an ex-spouse claiming a spousal benefit is entitled to up to 50% of the ex-spouse's benefit. Both spouses must be at least 62.

Unlike married couples, the higher earner—say, the husband—does not have to file for Social Security benefits before his ex-wife can claim on his record. "It's one advantage married couples don't have," says Martin Allenbaugh, senior marketing manager for T. Rowe Price. One exception: If the couple has been divorced for less than two years, the lower earner can't claim a spousal benefit until the other spouse has filed for benefits.

Remarrying will have an impact, though. "If you are drawing an ex-spousal benefit and get married, those benefits will stop," says Jim Blair, a former district manager for an Ohio Social Security office and a partner at Premier Social Security Consulting, in Sharonville, Ohio. If that new marriage ends, you could restart that spousal benefit from the previous ex—assuming that previous spouse provides the higher spousal benefit.

Your ex-spouse doesn't need to know that you are filing on his record. If you don't have your ex-spouse's Social Security number, the agency will track it down.

When it comes to survivor benefits, many of the same rules apply to both divorced couples and married couples. At full retirement age, an ex-spouse can claim a survivor benefit that is worth 100% of what her late husband received—or would have been eligible to receive—at his death. The ex-spouse can take a survivor benefit as early as age 60, but it will be reduced by 28.5% from what she would receive if she waited until full retirement age to claim. Full retirement age is 66 for those born between 1943 and 1954.

Unlike the spousal benefit, which ends if you remarry at any age, you can continue to take the survivor benefit if you get hitched again after you turn 60. If you are taking spousal benefits from a new spouse who you married after age 60 and your ex-spouse dies, you can switch to the ex's survivor benefit. Also, a surviving ex-spouse who claims a survivor benefit can continue to let her own benefit grow, up to age 70; at that point, she could switch to her own if it's higher.

A Special Deal for Divorced Couples

In most cases, it's the lower earner, whether married or divorced, who takes the spousal benefit. At times, though, the higher earner—say, the husband—will take a spousal benefit while allowing his own benefit to earn 8% a year in delayed retirement credits until age 70. To file a "restricted application," the beneficiary must be full retirement age.

If you're married, only one spouse can file a restricted application. Say Joe is eligible for a $2,000 benefit at 66. Mary files for her $1,500 benefit. Joe files a restricted application and receives $750 a month in spousal benefits. At 70, he switches to his own benefit, worth $2,640.

But ex-spouses get a big break. "Both exes can claim spousal benefits on each other," Allenbaugh says.

If a couple has been divorced at least two years, each ex-spouse is considered to be independent of the other. At full retirement age, each ex-spouse can file a restricted application for spousal benefits off the other ex-spouse's record. Both ex-spouses can then accrue delayed retirement credits on their own benefits.

Say John and Janet divorced at age 60. They each wait until age 66 to file a restricted application. John can receive $750 a month as a spousal benefit, based on Janet's full retirement age benefit of $1,500. Janet can receive $1,000 a month as a spousal benefit, based on John's benefit of $2,000. At age 70, Janet can switch to her boosted benefit of $1,980 and John can switch to his boosted benefit of $2,640.

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