Unraveling Social Security rules for ex-spouses

Find out when are you eligible for a spousal benefit on your ex-spouse's work record.

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Key takeaways

  • Learn the rules to qualify as an ex-spouse.
  • Avoid confusion about your ex-spouse's benefit.
  • Determine when it’s best to claim and on which record.
  • Factor your decision into your overall retirement income plan.
 

From its beginnings in the days of President Franklin Roosevelt, Social Security has held fast that spouses and ex-spouses have a claiming right to retirement benefits. And, if you are among the tens of millions who are divorced as you near retirement, it pays to know how Social Security can provide a source of guaranteed income in your retirement —perhaps more than you realized.

A spouse may be currently married—or formerly married—to an employed person, but under Social Security, as long as the former marriage was a long-term relationship, it still counts when it comes to claiming your Social Security benefits. Here's how the rules work if you are divorced.

Basic rules must be met

So long as some basic rules are met, you may be eligible to claim a higher retirement benefit based on your ex's work record. This applies to both ex-spouses, whether you are the ex-wife or the ex-husband, and also for divorced spouses in a same-sex marriage.

The basic rules

  • You and your ex must have been married for 10 consecutive years or longer, even if the marriage ended 30 years ago.
  • Both you and your ex must be at least age 62 before you can claim as an ex-spouse.
  • To collect on an ex's record you must not be remarried.
  • You and your ex must be divorced for two years or longer, or your ex must already be claiming retirement benefits.
 

Full Retirement Age (FRA)

This is the month and year when you reach a specific age for Social Security benefits. It is based on the year you were born. If you were born from 1943 to 1954, your FRA is 66. Later birthdays have a later FRA. Find your FRA at Social Security’s website.

If you qualify as an ex-spouse based on these criteria, your retirement benefit would be half of your ex's primary insurance amount, or PIA, so long as you claim at your full retirement age (FRA). The PIA is the benefit a person would receive if he or she elects to begin receiving retirement benefits at his or her normal FRA. You can claim as early as 62, but you will get less than half the amount you would get at FRA.

Is there a catch? Maybe. You'll only get a retirement benefit based on your ex's wage record if it is a higher benefit amount than you would receive based on your own wage record. You can call or meet with the Social Security Administration and they will let you know if and how to apply for the higher benefit amount.

Divorced and remarried?

If you were divorced but have since remarried, you are now a spouse from Social Security's perspective. You are no longer an ex-spouse. Your retirement benefits will be based on your current spouse's work history, not your ex's, regardless of whether your current or former spouse has a larger primary insurance amount.

Resources on the topic of divorce:

However, if your current marriage ends in divorce or the death of your spouse, you will be able to claim on whichever benefit is higher, your surviving spouse's benefit (if your current spouse dies) or your spousal benefit on the earlier ex (assuming you meet all the rules for claiming as an ex).

You should discuss your personal situation with the Social Security Administration.

Avoid these common misconceptions

1. Your benefit could be reduced or denied if your ex-spouse claims Social Security in a certain way

Fidelity surveyed* more than 1,000 people, asking whether they believed that an ex-spouse could influence their Social Security benefits. Fifty-two percent said yes, they could. The actual answer is no.

There are a lot of things an ex-spouse might do to complicate your life, but Social Security is off limits. Your ex has no influence over your benefits. When you are ready to claim your Social Security benefit, you simply make an appointment with your local SSA office and bring documents that prove the marriage and divorce. They will calculate your benefit options, and assuming you meet the criteria discussed earlier, you'll receive the higher benefit based on your ex-spouse's PIA.

2. I have to discuss my claiming plans with my ex

No, you don't. Nor do you need your ex's permission. He or she will never know whether your retirement benefit was based on his or her work record. So long as you've met the other rules, it's your benefit for your retirement, even if you've been divorced for more years than you were married.

3. If my ex claims against my record, my own retirement benefit will be reduced

Not so. Your ex's claim does not reduce or affect your benefit in any way. Under the Social Security program, all amounts paid to beneficiaries are calculated benefits based on a specific starting point. Multiple people's benefits can use the same starting point. Therefore, although your ex's benefit may be based on your Primary Insurance Amount (PIA), your benefit is also based on that same PIA, and if you've remarried, your current spouse may also get a spousal benefit based on your PIA. Although all share the same starting point, these are three separate calculated benefits.

When is the best time to claim on your ex-spouse's record?

When to claim depends on how long you think you'll live. If you are generally healthy and active or have relatives who have lived a long time, you'll probably want to plan for 20, 25, 30, or more years in retirement. With Social Security, the longer you wait to claim, the larger the amount of monthly payments you'll generally receive on your own work record. However, your benefit as an ex-spouse will not get any larger than half your ex's PIA. And, that is only if you wait until your FRA to claim.

Let's look at an example: Clair and her ex were married for 17 years, from 1975 to 1992. She worked and qualifies for her own Social Security benefits. Now, at age 64 (date of birth in 1954), Clair is thinking about retirement and wants to know when she should claim, on whose record, and how much she would receive in monthly benefits under each scenario.

Clair claims at 64 Clair claims at her FRA of 66 Clair claims at age 70
Clair’s PIA $1,000/mo. $866/mo. $1,000/mo. $1,320/mo.
Her ex’s PIA $2,400/mo. $999/mo. $1,200/mo. $1,200/mo.
Clair will only receive the higher of the 2 benefits. $999/mo. (her ex-spouse’s benefit, reduced for early claiming) $1,200/mo. (her ex-spouse's benefit) $1,320/mo. (her own work record benefit)
For illustrative purposes only.
 

If Clair claims at 64, she locks in a permanent reduction of her monthly benefits. If she waits till 70, she'll get a higher amount, but would have to use other assets to pay her retirement expenses between now and age 70.

There is one other claiming strategy for Clair to consider. Because (in this example) she was born before January 2, 1954, she is grandfathered into one additional claiming strategy: the spousal restricted application. That means if Clair waits to claim until her FRA, she will be eligible to claim her spousal benefit first, then switch to her own maximum benefit at age 70. She would collect $1,200/month as an ex-spouse for four years, and then switch to her own benefit of $1,320/month at 70.

What happens if my ex dies before me?

Assuming all claiming rules apply, if your ex dies first and you are unmarried, in general you can receive the monthly payment amount that your ex was receiving. You only file as a surviving ex-spouse if he or she was receiving more than you currently receive in payments.

If your ex had remarried, you are still entitled to survivor benefits, as is the current spouse. Call or make an appointment with your local Social Security Administration office to discuss your personal situation.

Tip: To learn about trends in aging and people living longer, read Viewpoints: Longevity and your retirement.

The wives of Johnny Carson

What happens if your ex happens to have 2 (or 3) other exes and also a current spouse? Are you eligible for any benefits when they die?

This was the case with former late-night TV talk show host Johnny Carson, who was married 4 times. His first marriage lasted about 15 years; the second, 9 years; and the third, 13 years. The fourth marriage was intact when he died in 2005 and lasted 18 years. Assuming the ex-spouse rules were the same as today, his first and third wives were eligible to claim as ex-spouses on Johnny's PIA (each could collect half if she claimed at her Full Retirement Age ). Because the second marriage lasted only 9 years, she unfortunately could not file for spousal benefits.

When Johnny died, his fourth and current wife would "step in his shoes" and receive the same monthly amount that Johnny had been receiving (once they reached their own FRAs); the 2 qualifying ex-spouses were also eligible to step in his shoes as surviving ex-spouses who met the qualifications. In this case, it is likely that all 3 women were receiving the same survivor benefit amount.

Your Social Security decision affects your retirement income plan

It's important to develop a strategy for when you will claim your Social Security benefit and on whose wage record. Your decision can make a significant difference in your overall retirement income plan. Knowing that you may have a larger Social Security benefit coming from your ex-spouse could make a difference in your cash flow throughout retirement.

Take the time to create your retirement income plan with a Fidelity representative and see how your Social Security benefits as an ex-spouse could make a difference.

Next steps to consider

Create your plan for retirement income.

Answer 5 simple questions to estimate your benefits.

Get claiming strategy tips for couples, singles, and divorcees.

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