social security

Yes, You Can Collect Social Security from an Ex-Spouse: Here’s How

It’s always smart to maximize your Social Security benefits, and if you are divorced, one way to do that might be to take them based on your ex’s earnings record. Here are some of the rules on how that works.

Divorce is always tough — emotionally and financially. But divorce later in life can be especially challenging (and that’s more common than you may think.) While marital splits in the U.S. are generally on the decrease, the divorce rate among Americans 50 and older has roughly doubled since the 1990s, and almost tripled for those over 65.

If you’re divorced and nearing retirement, it’s a good time to educate yourself about Social Security (SS) and to learn the ins and outs of collecting benefits from a divorced spouse.

First of all, yes, you can collect on your ex-spouse’s record if:

  • You are at least 62 years old.
  • You are single.
  • You were married to your ex-spouse for at least 10 years.
  • The benefit you are entitled to receive based on your own work history is less than the benefit you would receive based on your former spouse's work history.
  • Your ex-spouse qualifies for Social Security benefits.

You can even begin drawing benefits before your ex has retired, as long as they qualify and you’ve been divorced at least two years.

How Much Can I Receive?

You can receive up to 50% of the amount your former spouse would receive in benefits at their full retirement age (this equation applies to all spouses, not just exes). This amount is not in addition to your own benefit — and again, your benefit has to be lower than half of your ex’s benefit in order for you to apply. In other words, if your monthly Social Security check (based on your own earnings record) would be $1,000, and your ex’s benefit would be $1,500, you would not be eligible for former spousal benefits ($1,000 is more than $750, which is half of $1,500).

When applying for Social Security on your own record, your timing affects the amount you receive. That is also the case when applying on your former spouse’s record. You can begin receiving benefits when you turn 62, but since you’d be applying for benefits before your full retirement age, your benefits would be permanently reduced by a percentage based on the number of months until your full retirement age. To get the full 50% of your ex’s benefit, you must wait until your full retirement age, but waiting beyond that age won’t get you any additional money like it does when applying on your own record.

A few more details:

  • If you start taking benefits at 62 and continue to work, you’ll be subject to the retirement earnings test. Your benefits could be reduced depending on the amount of income you earn.
  • If you were born before Jan. 2, 1954, and have already reached full retirement age, you can choose to receive only your ex’s benefit and delay receiving your own retirement benefit until a later date. This option, called filing a restricted application, is not available if you were born after the 1954 date.
  • If you receive a pension from an employer that did not withhold Social Security taxes (like a government), your benefits may be reduced according to the Government Pension Offset (GPO).
  • Taking benefits on your ex’s record will not reduce the amount they or their current spouse will receive.

And if, like Elizabeth Taylor, you have been married more than once, you can choose which spouse’s benefits you want to collect on.

What If My Ex Is Deceased?

Many divorced spouses are eligible for the same survivor benefits as current spouses, which means you could receive the full amount of your ex’s benefits, rather than just half. Again, your marriage has to have lasted at least 10 years and the amount has to be greater than what you’d receive based on your own record. But there is one other big difference: You can begin receiving survivor benefits at age 60, or 50 if you’re disabled.

You may also be eligible for “child in care” benefits if you are caring for the deceased’s children (16 years old or younger, or disabled). This benefit is not available to divorced spouses unless their ex has died.

How Do I Collect a Divorced Spouse's Social Security?

According to the Social Security Administration (SSA)’s Retirement Planner: If You Are Divorced, when applying for benefits on your ex’s record, you’ll be asked a number of questions about your name and work history, and may need to provide:

  • A 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.
  • Your marriage certificate.
  • Your final divorce decree.

The SSA will accept copies of tax and medical records, but needs the originals of most other documents, such as birth certificates. Don’t worry if you don’t know where your papers are located. “Do not delay applying for benefits because you do not have all the documents,” it says in bold letters on the SSA website. “We will help you get them.”

Speaking of help, I suggest you speak with a professional before deciding how and when to take Social Security. Whether divorced, married or single; you’ll find there are many ways to maximize your benefits, and just as many ways to leave money on the table. Learn about all of your options before you retire, so you can get the amount you deserve.

About the Author

Ken Moraif, CFP®

CEO and Senior Adviser, Retirement Planners of America

Ken Moraif, CFP, is CEO and senior adviser at Retirement Planners of America, a Dallas-based wealth management and investment firm with over $4.3 billion in AUM and serving over 8,000 households (as of May 2019). He is also the host of the radio show "Money Matters with Ken Moraif," which has offered listeners retirement, investing and personal finance advice since 1996.

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