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Social Security Rules to Know If You're Divorced

By Christy Bieber – Apr 28, 2018 at 10:01AM

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You can claim Social Security benefits on your spouse's work history in most cases, but don't assume this means you can delay claiming your own benefits.

Social Security benefits will likely account for a substantial amount of your retirement income, so you'll want to get the maximum benefit possible. Sometimes, this means claiming benefits on the work history of a spouse, instead of on your own record. 

Claiming benefits on your spouse's work history sometimes make sense even if you're no longer married. If you're divorced, it's important to understand when and how you can claim benefits on your ex's record so you can maximize your Social Security income. 

Social Security card sitting on top of money

Image source: Getty Images.

Are you eligible to claim benefits on your ex-spouse's work record after a divorce?

If you think you may be able to obtain more money from Social Security by claiming on your ex's work record, you'll first need to determine whether you're actually eligible to do that. 

You can claim benefits on your ex-spouse's work history as long as you were married for at least 10 years, and aren't remarried to someone else. You also must be at least 62 or older when you claim benefits, unless your ex is deceased and you meet the qualifications for survivor's benefits

In addition to these basic requirements, your ex-spouse must also be eligible to receive Social Security, and your spousal benefit must be higher than the benefit you'd receive if you claimed under your own work record. 

Can you claim benefits on your ex's work record before your ex is retired?

There's another key factor to consider when determining if you're eligible to claim Social Security benefits based on an ex-spouse's work record: whether your ex is retired or not. 

If you divorced less than two years from the time you hope to claim spousal benefits, you'll have to wait until your ex claims his or her own benefits before getting benefits on his or her record. This same rule applies to couples who are still married -- it's generally not allowed to claim spousal benefits unless your spouse is receiving benefits, too. 

However, if you divorced more than two years ago, you'll be able to claim your spousal benefits regardless of what your ex is doing. 

Can you claim benefits on your ex's record and delay claiming your own benefits?

Waiting to claim Social Security benefits has some big advantages, as you can increase your monthly income by doing so. As a result, it'd be ideal if you could claim Social Security based on your ex's work record when you first leave the workforce and delay claiming your own benefits until you've reached full retirement age or later.

Unfortunately, you generally can't do that. When you file for spousal benefits, you're deemed to have filed for your own benefits as well. If you claim benefits on your ex's record at age 62, you're deemed to have filed for your own benefits early and will see your benefits reduced as a result. 

There's an exception for those who were born before 1954. If you're one of them, once you reach full retirement age, you can claim benefits on your spouse's work history and wait to claim your own benefits until later -- thus earning delayed retirement credits. 

There are also different rules if your ex-spouse has passed away. You may be eligible to claim survivor's benefits early and switch to your own benefits later to receive a larger benefit amount if your ex has passed away. 

How much will your Social Security benefit be?

The amount of money you'll receive is determined by:

  • Your own work history
  • Your spouse's work history
  • Your age at the time you claim benefits

The Social Security Administration will determine your benefits using a formula that takes into account your highest 35 years of wages.

Your ex-spouse's benefits are determined the same way. Your spousal benefits -- or benefits based on your ex's work record -- are equal to a maximum of 50% of what your ex would receive at his or her full retirement age. If your ex would get $1,500 in benefits at full retirement age, your maximum spousal benefit is $750. 

When you apply for benefits, the Social Security Administration pays your benefits first. If claiming spousal benefits results in higher benefits, the Social Security Administration pays you an additional amount so that combined benefits -- your own and your spousal benefits -- equal the higher benefit. 

If you retire before your full retirement age, your total amount of benefits are reduced based on how early you leave the workforce. 

Should you claim Social Security based on your ex's work history?

If you're eligible and can get a higher Social Security benefit by claiming on your ex's work history, there's no reason not to do so.

Just be aware that claiming spousal benefits means you're claiming your own benefits, too, in most cases -- so if you claim early, you lose the chance for delayed retirement credits, and your total Social Security benefit is smaller than if you'd waited longer.

Take this into account, and consider whether waiting longer to maximize your Social Security income might make sense for your situation.

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