Love and marriage don’t always last forever. But if your matrimony lasted 10 years or more, the financial benefits can last a lifetime. That’s because you may be able to take Social Security based on your ex-spouse’s benefits instead of your own, even if you divorced decades ago.
The philosophy is that both spouses often contribute economically during the marriage, even if only one person was employed. The Social Security rules protect those who spent most of their working years raising a family or playing a supportive role to their spouse and may have no retirement savings of their own.
The Rules for Social Security After Divorce
The maximum benefit you can get based on the record of a spouse — whether you’re currently married or divorced — is 50% of their full retirement age benefit. Full retirement age is the age at which you qualify for 100% of your benefit. It’s 66 or 67, depending on when you were born.
If your ex-spouse dies before you, you’ll typically be eligible to receive survivors benefits of 100% of the monthly payment they were receiving, just as you could if your current spouse died.
People with a long employment record will typically qualify for a bigger benefit based on their own earnings instead of a spouse’s. Social Security will give you the bigger benefit, but not both.
If you do qualify for more money thanks to your ex-spouse, they’ll technically give you whatever benefit you earned based on your record. Then, they’ll use your ex’s record to make up the difference.
Seeking to get revenge on an ex-spouse by claiming their Social Security? Move on. Your decision won’t affect their benefits in any way, nor will it impact their current spouse if they’ve remarried. If they’ve been married multiple times, all their exes are allowed to claim on their record.
Occasionally, a divorce settlement will state that one spouse can’t collect Social Security based on the other person’s record. Such stipulations are utter nonsense. The Social Security Administration says they’re “worthless and never enforced.”
How to Get Your Ex’s Social Security in 5 Easy Steps
Since your Social Security checks won’t affect your ex in any way, the only reason to try to claim their benefits is if you think you can get more money. If you suspect their record will maximize your Social Security, follow these five steps.
1. Make Sure You Can Answer ‘Yes’ to These Questions
To qualify for an ex’s Social Security benefits, you need to be able to answer “yes” to these four questions.
- Were you married for 10 years or more? If your marriage lasted less than 10 years, you won’t qualify for an ex’s benefits. Common-law marriages don’t count. You also need to have been divorced at least two years before you can start getting checks based on your former spouse’s history, unless they’ve already started receiving benefits.
- Are you at least 62? This is the minimum age for starting Social Security retirement benefits, no matter whose record you’re using. However, you can qualify regardless of your age if you’re caring for your ex’s child who is under 16 or disabled. If your ex-spouse is deceased, you can qualify for survivors benefits at age 60, or age 50 if you’re disabled.
- Are you still unmarried? If you’re currently married, you can only claim on your record or your current spouse’s record. You’ll only be eligible 50% of their full benefit as well. And if you’ve been married and divorced multiple times? Social Security will use whichever ex-spouse’s record gives you the biggest benefit. Remember, though: Only marriages that lasted 10 years or more will count.
- Is your ex eligible for benefits? In addition to the minimum age of 62, Social Security requires at least 40 work credits, which amounts to 10 years of full-time work, to start benefits. If your ex doesn’t meet these criteria, there’s no benefit for you to claim. Note that they don’t need to be receiving benefits. They just need to be eligible.
2. Gather Your Ex’s Information
You’re going to need some information to prove to Social Security that you’re eligible for your ex’s benefits. Be prepared to provide your marriage license and your divorce decree.
Social Security will also need to locate their record. This will be easiest if you still have their Social Security number. If you no longer have it, Social Security may be able to find their record if you can provide their date of birth, where they were born and the names of their parents.
3. Resist the Urge to Tell Them
Remember: Your decision to seek more Social Security on your ex’s record does not affect them in any way. So there’s absolutely no reason to contact them about it. You don’t need their consent to get benefits based on their record. Social Security will not contact them about your application.
4. Ask Social Security Whose Record Gets You the Best Benefit
Now take that information you gathered about your ex to Social Security so you can figure out whose record will give you the biggest benefit. You can call them at 800-772-1213 or visit your local office. An appointment isn’t required, but scheduling one can cut down on your waiting time.
5. Delay as Long as Possible (but Not Too Long)
The earlier you take benefits, the lower your monthly checks will be, no matter whose record you claim on. The 50% you can qualify for from their history is the maximum you’ll get if you wait until your full retirement age of 66 or 67. For every year you claim before then, you’ll permanently reduce your benefits by 6.66%. If you claim at 62, you’d only qualify for 32.5% of their benefit.
Don’t wait too long, though. When you take benefits on your own record, you get an extra 8% for every year you delay past your full retirement age until your benefits max out at 70. But when you’re getting spousal benefits, you don’t earn delayed retirement credits. You won’t get extra money for waiting past your full retirement age, so there’s no point in delaying any further.
A final note: In the past, a common Social Security strategy was to claim based on a current or former spouse’s record as early as possible, then switch over to your own bigger benefit later on. But the rules changed under a 2015 law called the Bipartisan Budget Act. Now this is only an option if you were born Jan. 2, 1954, or earlier.
Robin Hartill is a certified financial planner and a senior writer at Codetic. She writes the Dear Penny personal finance advice column. Send your tricky money questions to AskPenny@thepennyhoarder.com.