Many retirees claim Social Security benefits based on their own work history. Their monthly checks are based on their inflation-adjusted average earnings over the course of their career.

But that's not the case for everyone. Millions of seniors claim benefits based on their spouse's work history. Spousal benefits could equal as much as 50% of the primary insured's benefit amount. And these spousal benefits aren't just available to current spouses. In some cases, ex-spouses will be entitled to them as well. 

If you have an ex whom you suspect will be claiming benefits based on your career record, you might be wondering what exactly this means for you. Here's what you need to know.

Older adult sitting at computer reviewing paperwork.

Image source: Getty Images.

Could your ex-spouse's claim affect your benefits?

If you are divorced, your ex-spouse is allowed to claim benefits on your work record if your marriage lasted for at least a decade and your ex has not remarried. Typically, it would make sense for your ex to do this only if you were the higher earner in the marriage and spousal benefits are higher than what the former partner would otherwise receive, or if your ex didn't work and pay into the system for long enough to be eligible for benefits. 

If your ex wants to claim spousal benefits, you don't get to opt out of this, and it has nothing to do with any divorce settlement that you may reach. It's a Social Security rule. And, in fact, you typically won't even know if and when your ex claims spousal benefits unless your former partner chooses to tell you; the Social Security Administration doesn't notify you for privacy reasons. 

The good news is, your own retirement benefits will not be affected in any way if your ex partner decides that it makes sense to claim spousal benefits. You'll still get the full amount of Social Security income you've earned based on your career wages and the age when you claim benefits.

Your current spouse, if you have one, will also be eligible to claim spousal benefits based on your work history, even if your ex is also getting these benefits. The difference, though, is that your current spouse is going to have to wait until you have filed for your own Social Security checks before starting spousal benefits. Your ex doesn't have to do this, as your decision about when to claim benefits doesn't affect that individual's eligibility as long as you have been divorced for at least two years before deciding to file for Social Security. 

It also doesn't matter if you happen to have multiple ex-spouses. Each of them could potentially claim Social Security benefits based on your paying into the system as long as each of your marriages lasted for at least a decade. 

Understanding the rules for spousal benefits should put your mind at ease, since you don't have to worry that Social Security claiming decisions made by your ex could affect the amount of retirement income that you have when you reach your later years.