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Could Your Ex Be Your Ticket to Bigger Social Security Checks?

By Kailey Hagen – Jun 19, 2021 at 6:00AM

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You don't need your ex's permission to capitalize on this benefit-boosting trick.

The average Social Security benefit is about $1,431 per month, or about $17,172 per year. That's not bad, but you might be able to do a lot better with a little help from the person you'd least expect: your ex.

You might be familiar with the concept of spousal benefits. These are Social Security benefits the government gives to the spouses of qualifying workers, even if the spouses never worked themselves. Well, there are ex-spousal benefits, too. Here's how they work.

Smiling person counting money

Image source: Getty Images.

If you're 62 or older and your ex is alive

Once you're 62 or older, you may be eligible for ex-spousal retirement benefits. These could be up to 50% of the benefit that ex-spouses are entitled to based on their work history. In order for you to qualify for these benefits, the following must be true:

  • Your ex has worked long enough (at least 10 years) to qualify for Social Security.
  • Your marriage lasted 10 years or longer.
  • You've been divorced for at least two years (only applies if your ex isn't already claiming benefits).
  • You're at least 62 years old.
  • You haven't remarried.
  • The ex-spousal benefit you qualify for is larger than the benefit you're entitled to based on your own work history.

If these criteria are met, you can claim an ex-spousal benefit even if your ex hasn't signed up for Social Security yet. Doing so doesn't affect the size of former spouses' benefits or their current spouse's benefit, if they've remarried. 

If you're 60 or older (50+ if disabled) and your ex is deceased

You could be eligible for survivors benefits if your ex spouse has died and you're at least 60, or at least 50 if you're disabled. The rules are a bit simpler than the rules for claiming retirement benefits. You must meet the following criteria to get your ex-spousal survivors benefits:

  • Your ex must have worked long enough to qualify for Social Security (it may not be 10 years, depending on their age at death).
  • Your marriage lasted 10 years or longer.
  • You're at least 60 (or at least 50 if disabled).
  • You haven't remarried.

The amount you'll receive depends on your ex's work history and the age you begin claiming. Keep reading for more info on how the age you sign up at affects your benefits.

If you remarry before 60 (or 50 if disabled), you'll lose your survivors benefit. Remarrying after this age won't affect your checks.

If you're caring for your ex's child age 16 or younger and your ex is deceased

You may claim ex-spousal survivors benefits at any age if you're caring for your ex's child who is 16 or younger, or any age if they were disabled before 22. There is no age or length-of-marriage requirement in this case. Otherwise, it's pretty similar to the survivors benefits discussed above.

Your children may also qualify for survivors benefits of their own up to 18 (or 19 if attending secondary school full time). They may collect benefits at any age if disabled before 22. In some circumstances, stepchildren, grandchildren, step-grandchildren, and adopted children may also be eligible for benefits.

How your age affects your ex-spousal benefits

Claiming early reduces your Social Security benefit, whether you're claiming on your own work record, a current spouse's, or an ex-spouse's. In order to get your full benefit, you must wait until your full retirement age (FRA). That's somewhere between 66 and 67 for today's workers. 

Every month you claim early reduces your benefit slightly. Unlike claiming on your own work record, your ex-spousal benefits won't increase if you delay them past your FRA. So there's no point in delaying beyond 67.

The only time the government won't reduce your benefits based on your FRA is if you're caring for your ex's minor child as discussed above. In that case, you get the full amount you're entitled to regardless of your age.

How to claim ex-spousal Social Security benefits

You can apply for ex-spousal Social Security benefits online, over the phone, or at your local Social Security Administration (SSA) office. Office visits are currently by appointment only due to the pandemic, so you must call first.

You need to have documents that prove your identity and your relationship to your ex in order for the SSA to approve your application. These include:

  • Your Social Security number
  • Your birth certificate
  • Your marriage certificate
  • Your divorce certificate
  • Your children's birth certificates (if caring for your deceased ex's minor child)
  • Proof of U.S. citizenship or lawful alien status (if you weren't born in the U.S.)
  • The routing and account numbers of the bank where you'd like the checks deposited

If you have any questions about the documents you need to bring, contact the SSA. Don't worry if you don't have access to all the paperwork you need. The SSA might be able to help you track down the missing pieces at no charge by contacting your state's bureau of vital statistics.

Covering your expenses and saving for retirement are tough to do on your own, so if you qualify for ex-spousal benefits, they're worth looking into. If you qualify, you'll receive regular monthly checks that could make your life a lot easier.

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