How Does a Gray Divorce Affect Social Security Benefits?

Can you claim your ex-spouse’s Social Security benefits? The answer is yes, as long as you meet certain criteria.

An older man and woman stand back to back with their arms crossed, clearly unhappy.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Editor’s note: This is part one of an ongoing series throughout this year focused on helping older adults navigate the financial difficulties of gray divorce. See below for links to the articles in the series.

People going through “gray divorce” should make it a priority to understand the rules about divorced spouse Social Security benefits to maximize their retirement income.

Social Security benefits are a key component of retirement income and probably the most misunderstood. When it comes to Social Security benefits for older divorced couples, the myths and misunderstandings are amplified.

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What's important to know is that if you are age 62 or older and were married to your ex for 10 consecutive years or longer, you may be able to collect up to half of your former spouse’s Social Security benefit based on their earnings history. But you will get a divorced spouse benefit only if it exceeds your own benefit based on your own earnings record. You will not receive both benefits combined. When someone qualifies for two benefits, the Social Security Administration pays the higher amount.

Other eligibility criteria include:

  • Your ex qualifies for retirement benefits or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI).
  • Both you and your ex must be at least age 62 before you can claim as an ex-spouse.
  • You must not be remarried.
  • You and your ex must be divorced for two years or longer, or your ex must already be claiming retirement benefits.

Here are some common questions I am asked about spousal Social Security benefits:

Do I have to wait for my ex to claim Social Security benefits?

Your former spouse doesn't need to be collecting his or her retirement benefits yet for you to claim ex-spousal benefits. However, if this is the case, the divorce must be at least two years old. (There is no two-year requirement if your ex is already receiving benefits.)

Will my ex's retirement benefit be reduced if I claim on his or her record?

One ex's claim does not reduce or affect the other ex’s benefit in any way.

Should I wait to take my ex-spouse’s benefits at age 70?

The most you can collect in divorced-spouse benefits is 50% of your former mate's primary insurance amount — the monthly payment he or she is entitled to at full retirement age. Unlike retirement benefits, spousal benefits don't continue to grow by 8% per year up to age 70.

Can my ex stop me from claiming benefits based on his or her earnings record?

No, you do not need your ex's permission. He or she will never know whether your retirement benefit was based on his or her work record.

  • Nor do you need to discuss your claiming plans with your ex.
  • Nor does your ex’s marital status have any bearing on your eligibility to receive ex-spousal benefits.
  • Nor can your benefit be reduced or denied if your ex-spouse claims Social Security in a certain way.

Bottom line: Your ex has no influence over your benefits. 

What happens if my ex dies?

As with widows and widowers, waiting until you reach the full retirement age (FRA) for survivors entitles you to receive 100% of the amount your late ex was getting from Social Security when he or she died. In most cases, claiming survivor benefits before you reach full retirement age reduces the amount of your benefit.

You qualify for survivor benefits on the work record of a late ex-husband or ex-wife if:

  • The marriage lasted at least 10 years.
  • You are at least 60 years old (at least 50 if you are disabled).
  • You are caring for a child from the previous marriage who is either under 16 or disabled and gets benefits on the record of your former spouse. In this case, there is no age or length-of-marriage minimum.
  • You are single, or if you have remarried, you did not do so until after you turned 60 (50 if disabled).

Once again, know that survivor benefits paid to you as a divorced spouse do not affect payments to the late beneficiary’s widow or widower or to other former spouses.

Social Security and divorce is a complicated subject, and you may be in a situation that I didn’t address above. As with anything else in divorce, it pays to be educated about the subject early in the process.

Do your research and contact the Social Security Administration. Provide them proof that you were married and are now divorced and provide them enough information for them to look up your ex’s records. They can be reached at 1-800-772-1213, or, or you can visit your local Social Security office.

You should also mention your concerns to your divorce attorney and reach out to a financial adviser, such as a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst, who specializes in divorce.

Articles in this series

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This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC or with FINRA.

Andrew Hatherley, CDFA®, CRPC®
Founder, Transcend Retirement, LLC & Wiser Divorce Solutions, LLC

Andrew Hatherley is the founder of Transcend Retirement, LLC and Wiser Divorce Solutions, LLC and the host of The Gray Divorce Podcast. After going through his own mid-life divorce, Andrew decided to help other people avoid the financial and emotional stress so common to the process. He earned the designation Certified Divorce Financial Analyst® and is trained in mediation and Collaborative Divorce. He is also a member of the Amicable Divorce Network.