Many retirees are familiar with the complexities surrounding Social Security retirement benefits that can lead to confusion and missed opportunities for extra income. It’s not uncommon for us to encounter folks who have been through a divorce and don’t realize they are entitled to benefits based on their former spouse’s earnings. If you were married for more than 10 years, you might be entitled to one-half of your ex-spouse’s Full Retirement Age (FRA) benefit and not know it.

Eligibility for ex-spousal benefits

The Social Security system has provisions for spouses, as well as ex-spouses, of retired workers. You qualify for an ex-spouse benefit if:

  1. You were married for at least 10 years
  2. You are not remarried
  3. Both of you are 62 or older.

If you meet these requirements, you are entitled to this benefit no matter how long it has been since you were married and your ex-spouse can even be remarried.

What you need to know:

1. Taking Benefits Early. Just like with retirement and spousal benefits, taking them before your FRA means the amount of the benefit will be reduced. For every year you take the benefit early, the benefit is reduced by about 8 percent. So taking the ex-spousal benefit at 62 when your FRA is 66, results in a reduction of 25 percent! If you need the income and have no other options, take it. But you’ll be better off if you can wait until your FRA.

2. You Have Your Own Earnings. Are you entitled to retirement benefits based on your own earnings history? If so, there may be some advanced options for you. For example, let’s say your retirement benefit is $1,000 a month at your FRA (66) and your ex-spousal benefit is equal to $750. If you need some income early, start by taking your ex-spousal benefit at 62, and then later at your FRA (or later) switch to your retirement benefit. While your initial benefit will be reduced up to 25 percent, your retirement benefit will not. You’ll nearly double your income four years later.

3. Getting Remarried. Are you in a relationship and considering getting remarried? If you are receiving ex-spousal benefits and get married, those benefits go away. If you don’t inform Social Security right away, you will have to pay them back from the time you got married. We’re not marriage counselors, but if your benefit is significant and getting married means that money goes away, you’ll want to consider the implications.

Here’s an interesting fact: one retired worker can support five or more ex-spousal benefits, provided they meet the requirements outlined above. None of the ex-spouses are impacted because of the actions of the others, so they would each receive their benefit as if none of the others existed.


Are you divorced and concerned about your Social Security options? We can help you make sense of system and develop a solution that is right for you.