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If you were previously married but are now divorced, it's important to keep in mind that you might still qualify for Social Security benefits based on your ex-spouse's work history.

In order to do so, you need to pass the following five-part test:

  1. Your marriage lasted for 10 years or longer;
  2. You are currently unmarried;
  3. You are at least 62 years old;
  4. Your ex-spouse is entitled to Social Security retirement benefits; and
  5. You aren't entitled to benefits based off your own work history that are larger than your theoretical spousal share.

While this is pretty straightforward, there are a couple of nuances that are worth noting.

First, even though you must be currently unmarried when you apply for spousal benefits stemming from your ex-spouse's earnings history, this doesn't mean that a remarriage disqualifies you forever.

For example, let's say that Katie and Duncan were married for 20 years but decided to divorce after their kids went to college. Three years later, Katie gets remarried to Mark. Obviously, as we can see in the five-part test, during her second marriage to Mark, she can't apply for benefits based on Duncan's work history.

However -- and here's where the nuance comes into play -- Katie's right to spousal benefits stemming from her first marriage can be revived if her second marriage ends. This is because all that matters from the perspective of the Social Security Administration is that she isn't remarried at the time she applies for spousal benefits.

Divorce

Source: Flickr user Linhchilicious.

A second nuance relates to when a divorced spouse can apply for benefits based on a former spouse's work history. Typically, if you're still married, you can't do so until your spouse has already applied for their own benefits. The one quasi-exception to this is the "file and suspend" strategy, but that's beyond our current scope.

When you're divorced, by contrast, the obligation to wait is eased. Namely, you're allowed to apply for benefits at any time after turning 62 regardless of whether your former spouse has already done so. The reason for this is obvious, as the link between spouses was legally severed in the divorce.

To be clear, this doesn't necessarily mean that you should apply for spousal benefits at 62, as the size of your monthly check is in part a function of when you apply for it. Here's how the SSA explains it:

A spouse can choose to retire as early as age 62, but doing so may result in a benefit as little as 32.5% of the worker's primary insurance amount. A spousal benefit is reduced 25/36 of 1% for each month before normal retirement age, up to 36 months. If the number of months exceeds 36, then the benefit is further reduced 5/12 of 1% per month.

Finally, spousal benefits and survivor's benefits are two separate things. What we're talking about here are spousal benefits. Alternatively, when a former spouse dies, the surviving ex-spouse becomes eligible for survivors benefits, which are capped at 100% of the former spouse's monthly benefits.

The cap, in this case, is twice that of a spousal share, which is limited to no more than 50% of the previous spouse's primary insurance amount. Consequently, it's possible that a person's survivors benefits could be almost twice as large as their spousal benefits, assuming that their ex-spouse waited until turning 70 before applying for benefits while the surviving spouse began receiving spousal benefits at age 62.

The point here is that there are a number of details that are important for ex-spouses to know about if and when they apply for Social Security. Divorce is already a miserable experience. There's no reason to compound it by missing out on your rightfully earned Social Security benefits.

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