Social Security Benefits After Divorce

You might be entitled to share in your ex-spouse’s Social Security benefits if you meet certain requirements.

By , Attorney · Cooley Law School

The federal Old-Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI) program—also known as "Social Security"—provides monthly benefits to certain retired and disabled workers as well as their spouses. When your marriage is ending, it's important to understand how the divorce will affect your or your soon-to-be-ex's rights to Social Security benefits that you and your spouse earned during your marriage.

Social Security Overview

Social Security is a financial benefit that anyone who worked throughout their lives and paid taxes into the Social Security system will be eligible to receive. There are four basic categories of Social Security benefits that are paid based on the record of your earnings:

  • Workers who have worked in "covered employment" for a certain number of years are eligible for at least partial retirement benefits as early as age 62.
  • Workers who are considered disabled under the Social Security program's medical guidelines can receive benefits.
  • Spouses and minor or disabled children of a retired or disabled worker who qualifies for Social Security retirement or disability benefits might be entitled to benefits based on the worker's earning record.
  • Spouses and minor or disabled children of a worker who qualified for retirement or disability benefits might be entitled to benefits based on the deceased worker's earning record.

The federal Social Security Administration (SSA) oversees Social Security benefits. For a complete explanation of Social Security benefits, visit Nolo's Social Security section.

Social Security Eligibility Requirements for Divorced Spouses

You do not have to have worked or contributed to Social Security taxes on your own in order to receive benefits based on an ex-spouse's work record. And, you might be able to receive benefits even if your ex-spouse has remarried.

To receive benefits based on your ex-spouse's work record, you must meet all of the following spousal-benefit eligibility requirements to receive payments:

  • your ex-spouse is entitled to Social Security retirement or disability benefits
  • your marriage lasted at least 10 years
  • you are unmarried
  • you're at least 62 years old, and
  • the benefit you're entitled to based on your own work record is less than the benefit you'd receive based on your ex's record.

If your ex-spouse qualifies but hasn't yet applied for benefits and is at least 62 years old, you can receive benefits as long as you've been divorced for at least two continuous years and meet all of the requirements listed above.

How Much Social Security Will I Receive?

It depends. If you qualify for Social Security benefits on your own work record, the government will pay that amount first (if you are eligible). You can check your estimated Social Security benefits on the SSA's website. However, if your ex-spouse's benefits are higher than yours, your payment will include your own benefits along with an additional amount from your spouse's benefits.

It's important to note that if you receive benefits based on an ex-spouse's work record, your receiving benefits will NOT reduce the benefits paid to your ex-spouse.

The total monthly payment depends on both spouses' work records and when they file to begin receiving payments. For example, if a spouse is at least 62 years old and applies for benefits, the SSA will reduce the monthly payment using the government's retirement earnings test. The older you are when you apply, the more the SSA will pay you each month.

However, if your ex-spouse doesn't apply for benefits until full retirement age, the maximum you can receive is one-half of your ex-spouse's full retirement amount. If you're unsure whether you should apply now or wait, contact an experienced Social Security attorney near you.

Eligibility for Social Security When Your Ex-Spouse Is Deceased

If your ex-spouse dies, you might receive benefits if your marriage lasted for at least 10 years. If you don't meet the 10-year marriage rule, you can still qualify for benefits based on your ex-spouse's work record if all of the following are true:

  • you're caring for your ex-spouse's natural or legally adopted child
  • the child is under age 16, or disabled, and
  • the child is getting benefits on your ex-spouse's work record.

Your benefits will continue until the child reaches age 16 or the child's disability ceases.

Your benefits as a divorced spouse will not affect the amount of benefits other survivors (such as another ex-spouse) receive on your ex's record.

How to Apply for Social Security Benefits After a Divorce

There are several methods for applying for Social Security benefits from your own work record or that of an ex-spouse. The best first step is to apply online through the SSA's website. There, you'll input the information necessary to determine your eligibility and payment amount. You can use the online form to apply up to four months before you want your retirement benefits to start.

You can also apply for benefits by phone (1-800-772-1213 or TTY 1-800-325-0778) or in person. If you plan to apply in person, though, call in advance to make sure that your local office is open and accepting walk-ins or appointments. You can use the SSA Field Office Locator to find the contact information for the SSA office closest to you.

You'll want to gather the following documents and information before you begin the application process:

  • the dates of current and previous marriages and the location of the marriage(s)
  • marriage certificate(s) and divorce decree(s)
  • your Social Security number
  • birth certificate
  • proof of U.S. citizenship if you were born outside of the United States
  • U.S. military service information, such as service dates, branches, and discharge papers, if applicable
  • employer names and dates for the past two years
  • W-2 or self-employment forms for the previous two years, and
  • bank information for setting up direct deposit.

On its Apply for Retirement Benefits page, the SSA provides detailed answers to FAQ, instructions on how to apply, and checklists for gathering the information you'll need to apply.

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