Social Security can provide essential income in retirement. But you need to know the rules for how these benefits work so you can maximize the money they provide. This is especially important if you are married or divorced, as special regulations can impact your eligibility for different kinds of benefits.

If you've ended a marriage, here are three Social Security rules you need to know to make the most informed choices about claiming entitlement benefits from the Social Security Administration. 

Older person reviewing paperwork and looking at computer.

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1. Spousal and survivor benefits are available if the marriage lasted at least 10 years

Spousal or survivor benefits can be an alternative to your own Social Security retirement benefits.

In some cases, if your spouse was a higher earner, you could end up with more money from them than you'd get based on your own work record. And if your spouse passed away, survivor benefits could become available to you at a much earlier age than your own retirement benefits would. 

You may assume that if you're divorced, you lose out on the opportunity to claim spousal or survivor benefits. However, that's not always the case. If your marriage lasted for at least 10 years, it's generally still possible to claim them. The Social Security Administration won't always let you know that, though, so it's important to do your own research about what benefits you want to claim in order to maximize your income from Social Security. 

2. You don't have to wait for your ex to claim Social Security to get spousal benefits if you've been divorced at least two years

If you are still married, you are not allowed to claim spousal benefits until your spouse has started getting his or her own checks. So if, for example, you wanted to get spousal benefits on your husband's work history, you would need to wait until your husband claimed his retirement benefits. You could, however, claim your own benefits in the meantime, if you qualified for them. 

If you're divorced but eligible for spousal benefits anyway based on the length of your marriage, you don't need to worry about this rule. As long as your divorce happened at least two years ago, you can make a decision about claiming spousal benefits entirely independently of whatever choices your ex makes. That means if you want to start your spousal benefits based on an ex-husband's work record but your ex still hasn't claimed their own retirement benefits, you won't be impacted at all.

On the flip side, if your ex is going to claim benefits on your work history after a divorce, you can't prevent them from doing so by delaying your own claim. In fact, you have no way to impact the amount of spousal benefits your ex gets at all. The good news, though, is their claim also won't change the amount of benefits you get, nor will they prevent your current spouse from getting spousal benefits if they want them.

3. Remarriage can affect eligibility for spousal or survivor benefits

If you plan to claim spousal benefits based on an ex's work record, you cannot remarry, or you'll lose eligibility for them. You'd become eligible for spousal benefits on your new husband or wife's work history instead. And if you plan to claim survivor benefits after your ex passes, you cannot remarry before age 60 (or age 50 if you are disabled) or you will lose eligibility.

Understanding these rules can help you decide what benefits to claim, when to claim them, and when -- or if -- you should consider getting remarried. If you want to maximize your Social Security income, be sure to research the rules carefully so you can make the best choice for you.