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No surprise here: A divorce typically affects a couple's finances. You may not be aware of one of the potentially positive effects, though. It turns out, you may be entitled to your ex-spouse's Social Security benefits, which could add up to thousands of dollars a year. Those benefits are available only under certain conditions, however.
Here's how to find out whether you can claim those benefits.
How Social Security Benefits Work When You're Married
When a worker files for Social Security benefits, the worker's spouse also might be eligible for benefits based on the worker's earnings. However, the spouse must be at least 62 years old and must be caring for a child who is under 16 or who receives Social Security disability benefits.
The situation changes if the spouse is eligible for their own Social Security benefits based on their own earnings. If the spouse's retirement benefits are higher than the spousal benefits, then the Social Security Administration will first pay the retirement benefits; otherwise, the spouse receives spousal benefits.
How Social Security Benefits Work When You're Divorced
Social Security benefits for an ex-spouse don't work the same as they do for a current spouse. If you are 62 years and are unmarried, and you are divorced from someone entitled to Social Security retirement or disability benefits, you might be eligible to receive benefits based on your ex-spouse's earnings history. Other requirements apply in this scenario, though.
How to Qualify for an Ex-Spouse's Social Security Benefits
Aside from being 62 years old and unmarried, and being divorced from someone entitled to get Social Security retirement or disability benefits, you must meet these qualifications to receive ex-spouse benefits:
- You must have been married to your ex-spouse for at least 10 years.
- If you've married someone else since your divorce, you can't collect benefits based on your former spouse's earnings record unless your later marriage ended in annulment, divorce or death.
- If you're entitled to benefits based on your own earnings history, your benefit amount must be less than you would have gotten based on your ex-spouse's work. So, you can receive the higher of the two benefit amounts, but you can't tap into both benefit categories.
- You can apply for benefits based on your ex-spouse's earnings record even if they're not retired yet, but only if you ended your marriage at least two years before submitting your application.
To find out whether you qualify for benefits, use the Social Security Administration's Benefit Eligibility Screening Tool. If you have your ex-spouse's Social Security number, you can look up the former spouse's benefits information on the Social Security website. If you don't have that number, you can ask your ex-spouse for it—if you're still on speaking terms, that is.
What Happens if There's Another Ex-Spouse?
If there's more than one ex-spouse in the picture, both you and any other former spouse might qualify for benefits based on the earnings record of the mutual ex-spouse.
It isn't a matter of who gets there first; you and all former spouses are entitled to the individual's Social Security regardless of who has or hasn't applied for them—or when the benefits were applied for.
When You Were Born Affects Benefit Eligibility
Another consideration when claiming an ex-spouse's Social Security benefits is your date of birth:
- If you were born before January 2, 1954, and have already reached full retirement age, you can decide to claim only the divorced spouse's benefit and put off claiming your own retirement benefits.
- If you were born on or after January 2, 1954, the option to take only one benefit at full retirement age is gone. Therefore, when your ex-spouse files for one benefit, they're really filing for all of their own benefits and spousal benefits.
By the way, if you wait until full retirement age to claim benefits as a divorced former spouse, your benefit will be limited to half the amount of your ex-spouse's Social Security retirement or disability benefits. The same holds true if your ex-spouse has died.
How Does the Death of an Ex-Spouse Affect the Benefits?
In the event that your ex-spouse has died, you might qualify for the same Social Security benefits as a widow or widower would if:
- Your marriage lasted at least 10 years.
- Benefits paid to you as a surviving divorced spouse won't affect the benefit amount for other survivors who are receiving benefits based on the ex-spouse's earnings history.
If you remarry after you reach age 60 (age 50 if you have a disability), the new marriage won't affect your eligibility for benefits from an ex-spouse who has died. Also, you won't need to adhere to the "10 years of marriage" rule if you're caring for a child who is under 16 or who has a disability, and that child is getting benefits based on the ex-spouse's earnings record. The child must be a natural or legally adopted child of your ex-spouse, however.
How to Apply for Social Security Benefits As an Ex-Spouse
Follow these steps to apply for Social Security benefits as an ex-spouse:
- Apply online if you're within three months of your 62nd birthday or older.
- Submit an application by calling the Social Security Administration at 800-772-1213 (or 800-325-0778 if you're deaf or hard of hearing).
- Visit your local Social Security office to complete an application. You don't need to make an appointment, but it can speed up the process.
- Supply your ex-spouse's Social Security number. If you don't know that number, you must provide your former spouse's date of birth, place of birth and parents' names.
- Gather paperwork. Documents you might need to provide include your birth certificate or other proof of birth, proof of U.S. citizenship (or proof of lawful alien status if you aren't a U.S. native), U.S. military discharge papers if you served in the military before 1968, W-2 forms or self-employment tax returns from the previous year, and final divorce decree.
- Make sure you've got your personal information on hand, such as your date of birth, place of birth and Social Security number.
- Provide your checkbook or other paperwork that shows your number for your bank account in order to sign up for direct deposit of your benefit checks.
Keep in mind that you can't apply for benefits online if you're a surviving divorced spouse. Instead, you must apply in person.
The Bottom Line
If you've gone through a divorce, you may be eligible for perhaps thousands of dollars a year in Social Security benefits based on your ex-spouse's earnings history. But you won't know until you look into the situation. Once you do your homework and complete a Social Security Administration application, you might wind up gaining a tidy financial benefit from a marriage that ended years ago.