Image source: SSA.

Social Security provides benefits for workers and their family members, but many people don't realize that former spouses are also entitled to spousal benefits under certain circumstances. Not all ex-spouses qualify, but if yours does, then your ex can take Social Security benefits based on your work record. However, the fact that an ex-spouse can claim benefits doesn't take away the benefits you or your other family members receive.

Can your ex claim Social Security benefits on your work record?
Social Security's rules governing ex-spouses hinge on the length of the marriage. If you and your ex were married for 10 years or more, then your ex can potentially qualify for spousal and survivor benefits. An ex must meet some of the same requirements as current spouses, including being at least 62 years old to claim spousal retirement benefits.

What many people find surprising is the effect that remarriage has in this situation. If you get remarried, it doesn't affect your ex's right to Social Security benefits at all. On the other hand, if your ex gets remarried, then benefits based on your work history will no longer be available.

One key difference for ex-spouses
There is one way in which ex-spousal rights to Social Security differ from what a current spouse can do. If you haven't filed for retirement benefits based on your work record, then your current spouse isn't allowed to claim spousal benefits. However, ex-spouses are allowed to claim spousal benefits even if you haven't taken your retirement benefits yet, as long as you're eligible to receive them if you wanted to.

Because of the potential for abuse of this loophole, the Social Security Administration requires that ex-spouses must have been divorced for at least two years before it kicks in. For longtime divorced spouses, however, the provision prevents potential conflict between ex-spouses that would otherwise be possible if the working ex-spouse effectively had power to dictate the other ex-spouse's eligibility.

How ex-spouses' survivor benefits work
Similarly, an ex-spouse who was married to you for 10 years or more can claim survivor benefits after your death. The benefits are generally the same as what the ex-spouse would receive if the two of you were still married.

Survivor benefits are slightly different in how they deal with getting remarried. If your ex-spouse remarries before reaching age 60, then survivor benefits will no longer be available. However, unlike how spousal benefits work while you're still alive, if your ex-spouse remarries after reaching age 60, then the remarriage does not take away survivor benefits. That's an especially important provision for ex-spouses, because the ex-spouse will have had more time to remarry either before or after your death than your current spouse.

Determining benefit amounts
For the most part, the same calculations that go into determining spousal and survivor benefits for current spouses also apply to ex-spouses. Reductions for claiming early are still imposed, and benefit amounts are based in part on decisions that you make in claiming your retirement benefits.

The SSA provides an essential protection for ex-spouses when it comes to the family maximum. Sometimes, the family maximum leads to reduced benefits for family members. However, the SSA specifically states that benefits for divorced spouses, whether they're spousal or survivor benefits, are never reduced.

The idea that an ex-spouse can claim Social Security benefits surprises many people. However, the fear that an ex-spouse's eligibility could adversely affect your retirement benefits or those of your family members is unfounded. Preventing the potential for renewed conflict between ex-spouses is one of the benefits of the way Social Security handles ex-spouses' benefits.