Breaking up is hard to do, but you and your ex-spouse could end
up with a lifelong connection: your ex's Social Security benefits.
If you were married at least ten years, you could be eligible for a
spousal or a survivor benefit based on your former spouse's
And if you've been married and divorced more than once, there is
a silver lining among the dark clouds of unsuccessful matrimony.
You can choose the highest spousal or survivor benefit of your
As with married couples, an ex-spouse claiming a spousal benefit
is entitled to up to 50% of the ex-spouse's benefit. Both spouses
must be at least 62.
Unlike married couples, the higher earner--say, the
husband--does not have to file for Social Security benefits before
his ex-wife can claim on his record. "It's one advantage married
couples don't have," says Martin Allenbaugh, senior marketing
manager for T. Rowe Price. One exception: If the couple has been
divorced for less than two years, the lower earner can't claim a
spousal benefit until the other spouse has filed for benefits.
Remarrying will have an impact, though. "If you are drawing an
ex-spousal benefit and get married, those benefits will stop," says
Jim Blair, a former district manager for an Ohio Social Security
office and a partner at Premier Social Security Consulting, in
Sharonville, Ohio. If that new marriage ends, you could restart
that spousal benefit from the previous ex--assuming that previous
spouse provides the higher spousal benefit.
Your ex-spouse doesn't need to know that you are filing on his
record. If you don't have your ex-spouse's Social Security number,
the agency will track it down.
When it comes to survivor benefits, many of the same rules apply
to both divorced couples and married couples. At full retirement
age, an ex-spouse can claim a survivor benefit that is worth 100%
of what her late husband received--or would have been eligible to
receive--at his death. The ex-spouse can take a survivor benefit as
early as age 60, but it will be reduced by 28.5% from what she
would receive if she waited until full retirement age to claim.
Full retirement age is 66 for those born between 1943 and 1954.
Unlike the spousal benefit, which ends if you remarry at any
age, you can continue to take the survivor benefit if you get
hitched again after you turn 60. If you are taking spousal benefits
from a new spouse who you married after age 60 and your ex-spouse
dies, you can switch to the ex's survivor benefit. Also, a
surviving ex-spouse who claims a survivor benefit can continue to
let her own benefit grow, up to age 70; at that point, she could
switch to her own if it's higher.
A Special Deal for Divorced Couples
In most cases, it's the lower earner, whether married or
divorced, who takes the spousal benefit. At times, though, the
higher earner--say, the husband--will take a spousal benefit while
allowing his own benefit to earn 8% a year in delayed retirement
credits until age 70. To file a "restricted application," the
beneficiary must be full retirement age.
If you're married, only one spouse can file a restricted
application. Say Joe is eligible for a $2,000 benefit at 66. Mary
files for her $1,500 benefit. Joe files a restricted application
and receives $750 a month in spousal benefits. At 70, he switches
to his own benefit, worth $2,640.
But ex-spouses get a big break. "Both exes can claim spousal
benefits on each other," Allenbaugh says.
If a couple has been divorced at least two years, each ex-spouse
is considered to be independent of the other. At full retirement
age, each ex-spouse can file a restricted application for spousal
benefits off the other ex-spouse's record. Both ex-spouses can then
accrue delayed retirement credits on their own benefits.
Say John and Janet divorced at age 60. They each wait until age
66 to file a restricted application. John can receive $750 a month
as a spousal benefit, based on Janet's full retirement age benefit
of $1,500. Janet can receive $1,000 a month as a spousal benefit,
based on John's benefit of $2,000. At age 70, Janet can switch to
her boosted benefit of $1,980 and John can switch to his boosted
benefit of $2,640.