You’re Divorced? What You Need to Know About Social Security and Ex-Spouse Benefits

In my years as a financial advisor and professional fiduciary, I’ve met with a lot of divorced people who are concerned about their finances in retirement.

Maybe they lacked a high-income career, or maybe they quit their job to stay home with the kids. Regardless, with retirement on the horizon, they’re feeling anxious about their Social Security income. They’ve done the numbers, and their benefits—which are based on their work record—won’t be enough.

And when I tell these people that they can get Social Security based on their ex-spouse’s work record, I see hope and relief reflected in their faces. Many of them didn’t even know that they could receive benefits based on their ex-spouse’s record.

Here’s what you need to know about divorced spouse benefits:

How Much Can You Expect?

As a divorced person, you can receive Social Security benefits based on your work record or your ex-spouse’s, whichever is higher. If you are awarded benefits based on your ex-spouse’s record, you will receive 50% of their full retirement amount provided you meet the following qualifications:

  1. You will need to wait until you have reached what the Social Security Administration calls full retirement age, or FRA. This is the age at which you would receive the full benefits you are entitled to and is based on the year you were born. If you apply before FRA, you will receive less income.

  2. Your marriage to your ex-spouse must have lasted at least 10 years.

  3. You must be unmarried now. If you are married, you cannot receive benefits based on your ex-spouse’s record. However, if your current marriage ends, whether due to death, divorce, or annulment, you can qualify for ex-spouse benefits once again.

  4. Your ex-spouse must be entitled to Social Security retirement or disability benefits. If they have not yet applied for them but do qualify, you can still receive benefits based on their record so long as you have been divorced for at least two years.

  5. The amount of benefits you will receive has no effect on the amount of benefits your ex-spouse or their current spouse may receive. What’s more, they won’t be notified that you are receiving benefits based on their record.

  6. If your ex-spouse has died, you could still be entitled to benefits based on their record. The Social Security Administration has more information about the rules on its website.

Knowledge Is Power

I advise people to make sure they understand Social Security before they reach 62, the age at which most people are first entitled to it. By understanding your potential benefits based not only on your work record but also on your relationship status, you can gain a better picture of your income in retirement. And with a more complete picture, you may find you have increased peace of mind about your retirement plans. That alone makes the advance effort worth it.

For more information about ex-spouse benefits, visit the SSA website.