Even if your divorce was finalized years ago, your former marriage could have a lingering benefit that you might not be aware of: In some circumstances, people can collect Social Security based on the earnings record of their ex-spouse. In 2022, the maximum a person can collect based on a living former spouse's earnings is $1,672.50 per month.
Wondering if you could get more money by claiming Social Security benefits based on your ex's record instead of your own? Read on to learn the rules for Social Security and divorce.
Social Security's rules for ex-spouses
If you were married for at least 10 years and have been divorced for at least two, you can take benefits based on your ex's record instead of your own once you're 62, provided that you're still unmarried. But you can only do so if your ex's record would result in you receiving a higher benefit than you'd get based on your own.
It's important to note that you would not be in any sense taking anything away from your ex by doing this. You claiming Social Security based on their record will have zero impact on their benefits.
The most an ex-spouse can get in this way is 50% of their full retirement age benefit. The maximum full retirement age benefit is $3,345 per month in 2022. Therefore, you could get up to $1,672.50 in monthly benefits as an ex-spouse.
Essentially, most of the rules are the same as they are for taking benefits based on a current spouse's record, with one key exception. In order for someone to claim Social Security based on their current spouse's income record, the spouse has to be taking their benefits already. But if you're claiming on an ex-spouse's record, your ex only needs to be eligible for benefits. It doesn't matter if they're actually taking them yet.
It's also important to note that Social Security will give you the bigger of your own benefit or your ex's benefit. But you can't collect both.
Can you really get $1,672 per month in benefits this way?
Very few people will qualify for the maximum benefit. To be eligible, your ex would need to have earned Social Security's maximum taxable income -- or more -- for at least 35 years. In 2022, that figure is $147,000. Income above that level is not subject to the wage tax that funds Social Security, and does not impact the size of your benefit.
As of January, the average monthly Social Security benefit for retired workers was $1,657. Remember -- the most you can get by claiming using your ex's income history is 50% of your ex's benefit. So if your ex is due an average-size benefit, you could expect to receive $828.50 a month.
If you claim Social Security before your full retirement age -- whether this way or based on your own record -- you'll receive a reduced amount. If you were born in 1960 or later, your full retirement age will be 67. In that scenario, claiming an ex-spouse's benefit at 62 would provide you with just 32.5% of their full retirement age benefit.
But unlike when you take benefits based on your own record, you can't earn 8% delayed retirement credits for each year you delay beyond that until 70. The benefit is capped once you reach full retirement age.
The option to collect Social Security on an ex-spouse's record provides a safety net to spouses with limited work histories who may not qualify for benefits on their own -- often because they stayed at home to raise their children. But many people who worked for much of their adult lives will qualify for bigger benefits on their own, even if their ex-spouses out-earned them significantly.
How do I get my ex's benefit?
The process of applying for divorced spouse benefits is pretty much the same as applying for standard retirement benefits. The easiest way to do so is online. You may have to provide a copy of your marriage certificate or divorce decree. If you don't have these documents, apply anyway. Social Security can help you obtain the necessary information.
To begin, you have to be within three months of turning 62. But if your Social Security benefits will account for a significant portion of your retirement income, consider holding out longer if possible -- ideally, until full retirement age.
Remember: The most you can get is 50% of your former spouse's full benefit, but if you take Social Security early, you'll receive less than that. So delaying for as long as possible -- preferably until you reach your full retirement age -- is likely to be worth it, if you don't have a serious need for that money to cover your basic expenses sooner.