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Divorced? You May Be Able To Claim Social Security on Your Ex's Work History

By Christy Bieber – Dec 9, 2021 at 9:35AM

Key Points

  • Spousal benefits can provide substantial Social Security income for some seniors.
  • These benefits may still be available after a divorce.
  • Understanding the rules for spousal benefits is important.

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Don't leave these benefits on the table.

Social Security spousal benefits can provide more retirement income for some seniors than claiming Social Security retirement benefits based on their own work history. 

While you may assume you need to be married to claim them, that's not actually true in every situation despite the "spousal" benefits name. Ex-spouses could actually sometimes file for benefits based on the work history of someone they were previously married to. And those who may be eligible to do this need to know it, so they don't leave money on the table.

Adult reviewing financial paperwork in front of their laptop.

Image source: Getty Images.

When are divorced spouses entitled to spousal benefits?

If you are divorced, you are still be entitled to spousal benefits based on your ex's work history as long as:

  • Your marriage lasted for a period of at least 10 years.
  • You are not remarried (in which case, you'd be entitled to spousal benefits based on your current spouse's work history).

If you have been divorced for less than two years, you also must wait until your spouse claims benefits on their own work record before you become eligible to begin your spousal benefits. But if your marriage ended more than two years ago, this rule isn't a concern for you and your ex's decisions about when to claim Social Security won't have any impact on your eligibility at all. 

If your ex-spouse has passed away, you may also be entitled to survivor benefits. These can be an option for anyone who is divorced after a marriage of 10 years or more. And you may not have to wait until retirement age to claim these benefits if you are raising the minor child of a deceased ex-spouse. You can also get these survivor benefits even if you have remarried, as long as you were 60 or over when you tied the knot again (or over 50 if disabled). 

Should you claim spousal benefits? 

Whether you should claim spousal benefits after a divorce or not depends on how much your own benefits would be. See, you cannot get both spousal benefits and your own retirement benefits at the same time. You get the higher of the two benefits.

If your ex-spouse earned more money than you did, spousal benefits could potentially provide you with more Social Security income than your retirement benefits would. Depending on when you claim your spousal benefits, you are entitled to up to 50% of your ex's benefit at his or her full retirement age. If this is more than your benefit would be, spousal benefits are the way to go.

Likewise, if you don't have a work history spanning at least 10 years, you may not even be eligible for your own benefits. In that case, claiming spousal benefits is a no-brainer since you otherwise wouldn't get Social Security checks at all. Your decision to claim spousal benefits won't impact your ex's access to benefits, either, so there's no need to feel guilty about getting this money if you're entitled to it or worry about causing discord.

The important thing is to know your rights, to understand that claiming your spousal benefits early could shrink them, and to make sure you're getting the maximum Social Security benefits you're entitled to under the law. 

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