The amount of Social Security benefits you're entitled to is usually based on your work record. This can be a problem if you don't have very high earnings or don't work. But most people know they can claim on their spouse's work record to earn a higher income if their own benefit isn't big or they don't qualify on their own.

But a study has shown that close to two-thirds of people weren't aware that a divorced person is entitled to receive survivors benefits based on a deceased spouse's work record as long as the marriage lasted at least 10 years. 

This knowledge gap can be costly if you were divorced and your spouse has passed away. 

Wedding cake with bride and groom figures looking away from each other.

Image source: Getty Images.

When are you entitled to survivors benefits as a divorced person?

If you were divorced from your deceased spouse, you're still entitled to survivors benefits if:

  • You were married for 10 or more years and you didn't remarry before the age of 60 (or before 50 if you're disabled), or
  • You're caring for your deceased spouse's child who is under the age of 16 or who is disabled, regardless of the length of your marriage -- as long as you have not remarried.

You can claim these benefits regardless of when or if your spouse remarried after you divorced.

An important income source, as early as 50

Survivors benefits could be an important source of income for a few reasons.

If you're caring for a disabled child or child under 16, you can claim them at any time, which means you don't need to wait until retirement age to have money coming in. You can also claim as early as 50 if you're disabled, which you don't have the option to do with your own Social Security retirement benefits.

If you're not disabled, you can start receiving survivors benefits as early as 60 (versus 62 for your own benefits). But the amount of your monthly checks will be smaller if you don't wait until your full retirement age.  Depending on your birth year, your FRA is between 66 and 67. 

  • If you wait until your full retirement age, you can receive 100% of your deceased ex's primary benefit amount.
  • If you're caring for a child under 16 or disabled child, you can receive 75%, regardless of how old you are.
  • If you claim survivors benefits between ages 50 and 59 because you're disabled, you'll receive 71.5%.
  • If you claim after age 60 but before FRA, you'll receive between 71.5% and 99% depending how early you claim.

The amount of survivors benefits could be substantially larger than your own benefits if your ex-spouse earned a lot more than you or if you're able to claim earlier than you'd be entitled to for your own retirement income from Social Security. 

How to claim survivors benefits

It's important divorced spouses learn about their eligibility for survivors benefits, since they can't be claimed online. If you want to receive them, you'll need to apply at your local Social Security office or via phone.

You must provide proof of your marriage; divorce papers; proof of death; and Social Security numbers for yourself, your deceased spouse, and minor children if applicable. 

Don't leave your benefits unclaimed

Understanding Social Security's rules can be complicated. But if you're divorced and you were one of those Americans who didn't know the rules for survivors benefits, be aware of your rights so you don't leave money on the table. 

Talking to a financial adviser or making an appointment at the Social Security office could help ensure you get the benefits you deserve.