It is common knowledge that spouses are entitled to collect Social Security benefits on their fellow spouses’ work records.
Less well-known is that this benefit applies to divorced spouses as long as the spouse has not remarried. Divorced spouses are even entitled to survivor benefits in certain circumstances.
As a spouse, you have the option of claiming a Social Security retirement benefit based on your own earnings record or collecting a spousal benefit equal to half of your spouse’s Social Security benefit. You are automatically entitled to whichever benefit is higher, and you can collect on your spouse’s record even if you have never worked yourself.
As a divorced spouse, you can collect benefits on your ex-spouse’s record, even if the ex-spouse has remarried and even if the ex-spouse’s new spouse is collecting on the same record.
Meeting the Criteria
But to get this benefit, you must meet the following requirements:
- You were married for at least 10 years (although the marriage could have been briefly interrupted by divorce during those 10 years — see below)
- You are at least 62 years old
- Your ex-spouse is eligible for retirement benefits
- You are currently unmarried
If your ex-spouse has not yet applied for retirement benefits but can qualify for them, you can receive benefits on their record, provided you have been divorced for at least two years.
In addition, if you have reached full retirement age and are eligible for both a spouse’s benefit and your own retirement benefit, you may have a choice, depending on your age.
If you are 62 or older, you will be able to choose which benefit you want at your full retirement age.
When workers over 62 apply for spousal benefits, Social Security assumes they are also applying for benefits on their record. The worker is eligible for the higher benefit but can’t choose to take just the spousal benefits and allow their own benefits to keep increasing until age 70.
What About Remarriage?
If you remarry, you can't receive benefits on your former spouse’s record unless the new marriage ends (by death, divorce, or annulment).
Also, regarding the 10-year marriage requirement, a marriage could be interrupted by divorce and remarriage to the same spouse as long as the remarriage took place no later than the calendar year immediately following the calendar year of the divorce. Visit the SSA’s website for more information.
If you are the divorced spouse of a worker who has passed away, you could still be eligible for survivor benefits if the marriage lasted 10 years or more. You can receive reduced benefits starting at age 60 or full benefits at your full retirement age. Survivor benefits are equivalent to the deceased spouse’s full Social Security benefit amount.
However, if you remarry before the age of 60, you can't collect survivor benefits (unless the later marriage ends for any reason). If you remarry after age 60, you can still receive survivor benefits based on your former spouse’s record. However, if your new spouse is also collecting Social Security benefits and you would receive a higher amount based on the new spouse’s work record, you will receive the higher amount.
Once you reach full retirement age and are eligible for both a survivor benefit and your own retirement benefit, you have a choice. A surviving spouse can choose to take survivor benefits first (letting your own benefits accrue) and then switch to retirement benefits later if the retirement benefit is larger.
If you are caring for a child under age 16 or a disabled child who is getting benefits on the record of your former spouse, you would not have to meet the 10-year marriage rule.
Get more information on Social Security benefits for spouses and children. You may also benefit from consulting with an elder law attorney to help you choose the option that works best for your situation. Find a qualified attorney near you.