Married couples have lots of different options for strategizing to increase their Social Security benefits. While you may assume you lose that ability if you divorce, that's not necessarily the case.
In fact, it's important you know the rules for how the end of your marriage can affect your retirement income, as you don't want to make a mistake that could cost you benefits you're entitled to. In particular, here are three key things you need to know.
1. You may still be eligible to claim spousal and survivor benefits
If your spouse earned more than you, spousal or survivor benefits may provide more money than you'd be eligible for if you claimed Social Security based on your own work history. You may also be able to claim survivor benefits at a younger age than your retirement benefits become available.
The good news is, you don't necessarily lose access to survivor or spousal benefits when you divorce. If you were married for at least 10 years and haven't remarried someone else, spousal benefits should be available. And survivor benefits are also available after a marriage of at least a decade, as long as you don't remarry someone else before you turn 60 (or 50 if you're disabled).
Unfortunately, the Social Security Administration doesn't always disclose to you that you could get higher benefits, so make sure you do your own research to find out what you're eligible for.
2. You can't file spousal benefits and delay your own claim
If you were hoping you'd be able to file for spousal benefits but delay a claim for your own benefits -- perhaps to avoid early filing penalties or earn delayed retirement credits -- you unfortunately won't be able to do that.
When you file for your spousal benefits based on your ex's work history, a process called "deemed filing" ensures you're also filing for your own benefits too. Your benefits as well as your spousal benefits are reduced if you claim ahead of full retirement age, so you could end up with smaller checks for life if you claim early without understanding this.
This rule differs for widows and widowers, though, as those claiming survivor benefits now may be able to wait until age 70 before switching to their own benefits.
3. You don't have to wait for your ex to retire before claiming spousal benefits
If you're still married and want to claim spousal benefits, you can only do that if your spouse has already claimed their benefit. But if you've been divorced for at least two years, your spouse's claiming choice doesn't affect yours. You can start your spousal benefits as early as age 62, regardless of what your ex-husband or ex-wife is doing.
You will have to wait until your ex is at least 62, though, and your benefit will be based on what their benefit would be at full retirement age. And, again, remember that if you claim your spousal benefit early, that shrinks the amount you receive.
Understanding these rules is important so you can make the right decision about what benefits to claim and when to claim them. Since Social Security will almost assuredly be an essential source of retirement income, it's worth taking the time to learn how it works.