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Understanding Social Security: You can claim spousal Social Security benefits even if you’re divorced — here’s how

A recent email raised a question that I’m sure is prominent in many minds: How can I claim Social Security benefits off my ex-spouse’s earnings record? And how do I find out how much I’m eligible for from the ex?

Spousal benefits are an important part of Social Security retirement benefits. A spousal benefit is available to provide for a spouse who has a lower benefit due to a lower earnings record over his or her lifetime. 

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Quite often, there is a division of labor among a married couple, where one works full time throughout his or her career, and the other either works in the home, perhaps caring for children, or works part time or sporadically outside the home throughout his or her working years. This situation can result with one member of the couple having a much higher lifetime earnings record than the other, which then leads to a much higher Social Security benefit versus the member of the couple with the lower earnings record.

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When there is a significant disparity between the two earnings records, Social Security provides a way for the lower-earning spouse to receive an increase to his or her benefits, up to a maximum of 50% of the full retirement benefit of the spouse with the higher earnings record. It’s a very straightforward process if the couple is still married — and relatively easy to determine the amount of the possible spousal benefit for planning purposes.

However, in the case of a divorced couple (who I’ll call Ann and David, for our example), this can be a bit more complicated. 

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First of all, we must clarify the requirements that must be met in order for a spousal benefit to be available for Ann. As with all Social Security benefits, Ann must be at least age 62. Ann’s ex-spouse (David) must be at least age 62 as well, and eligible for a retirement benefit based on his earnings record. Also, Ann must not be eligible for a retirement benefit that is greater than 50% of David’s full-retirement age benefit. These requirements are no different from a married couple, but this is where the similarities end.

(Please note that although I’ve used a female name as the lower earner and a male name for the higher earner, the gender roles could be reversed and the claiming situation would be the same. In addition, same-sex couples are treated exactly the same as opposite sex couples with regard to these examples.)

In addition to the above requirements, the marriage between Ann and David must have lasted at least 10 years before the divorce. Even a day less than 10 years will eliminate the possibility of spousal benefits for Ann. Furthermore, Ann must be unmarried at the time she applies for (and while receiving) the spousal benefit. Subsequent marriages could have occurred after the divorce, but in order to receive spousal benefits based on David’s earnings, she must be unmarried at the time of her application, and remain unmarried.

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If Ann’s divorce from David was more than two years ago, Ann is immediately eligible for spousal benefits based on David’s record, assuming all of the above requirements have been met. If less than two years have elapsed since the divorce was finalized, Ann is not eligible for the spousal benefit until one of two things have occurred: either 1) the two years elapse, or 2) David files for his own Social Security retirement benefit.

So as you can see, the eligibility requirements for divorcees are more complicated than the married couple. The process of applying for the benefit is similar, with a few modifications as well.

In the case of a married couple, filing for a spousal benefit is handled by any of the three methods — online (via SocialSecurity.gov), on the phone (toll-free at 1-800-772-1213), or in person at a local Social Security office. When applying for retirement benefits, your available spousal benefits are automatically applied for at the same time.

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In Ann’s case it can become much more complicated. Most likely she will need to apply by phone or in person at a local office, as the online process won’t likely meet her needs. She will need to provide a copy of a marriage certificate and a divorce decree, in order to document the fact that she’s eligible for the spousal benefit. She also should (if she has it) provide David’s Social Security number.

If she doesn’t have his Social Security number, Ann should be prepared to provide as much information as possible about David as she can, including full name, date of birth, last known address, parents’ names, and other potentially relevant information in order to identify him. As you can imagine, having the Social Security number is the best and quickest way to identify the ex-spouse. Without the Social Security number, it is likely that there will be delays while the identification is proven.

With this information, and once the identification is verified, Ann can complete her application for spousal benefits based on David’s record. David will be unaware of Ann’s application, and there is no impact to his benefit or any other benefit based on David’s record.

The answer to the second part of the question is similar. In order to find out what spousal benefits Ann might have available, it is necessary to identify David and prove (with documentation) that Ann was married to David for at least 10 years and that they are divorced. Once this identification is complete, Social Security staff, either in person or on the phone, can provide information about what spousal benefits are available.

Generally, when talking with Social Security staffers, asking a question about benefit amounts results in an answer solely based on how much you could receive today. Much of the time, delaying an application for benefits even a few months can result in a larger benefit amount. Plus, if you’re still working, you might have to give up part of your benefit, depending on how much you earn.But those are topics for another time.

Readers, do you have a Social Security question? Email us at [email protected].

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