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Social Security and Divorce: What Women Need to Know

Answers to nine questions about spousal benefits for divorced women

Divorce may end a marriage but it does not end a woman's spousal Social Security benefits.

These benefits apply whether or not you have a work history of your own. When you begin receiving retirement benefits, the Social Security Administration will calculate your benefits both as a worker and as an ex-wife or widow.

You will receive the largest benefit for which you qualify whether that's your own or your ex-husband's — but not both benefits added together. You may apply for spousal Social Security benefits without filing special papers at the time of your divorce and you may receive those benefits even if your ex-spouse has remarried.

(MORE: Social Security: What Every Woman Needs to Know)

Here are answers to nine common questions related to Social Security benefits and divorce:

1. Am I eligible for benefits?

You must meet several criteria to collect spousal benefits after divorce:
  • You must have been married for 10 years or longer.
  • You may not be currently married.
  • If you re-married after divorce and your second spouse is deceased, you may claim benefits from your first or second spouse as long as each marriage lasted at least 10 years. You will receive whichever benefit amount is higher.
  • You must be age 62 or older to collect benefits unless your ex-husband is deceased, in which case you must be at least 60, or 50 if you are disabled.

2. May I collect benefits before my ex-husband applied for his?

If your ex-husband is 62 or older and has not applied for benefits, you may start receiving benefits if you have been divorced for two or more years.

3. How much of his benefit will I receive?
  • In general, you will receive one-half of your former husband's retirement benefit. If he is deceased, you will receive his full retirement benefit.
  • Your Full Retirement Age will also affect the benefit amount you receive.
  • If you take any benefit before your Full Retirement Age, the benefits you receive will be reduced.
  • The age for full retirement has been gradually increasing from 65 to 67 based on a person's birth year. To find out your Full Retirement Age, consult this chart on the Social Security Administration website.

4. If my ex-husband's wife is collecting benefits based on his record, will that reduce my benefits?

No. Neither will your taking a benefit reduce or in any way affect the second wife's benefit or your ex-husband's benefit.

(MORE: What Spouses Should Know About Pension Benefits)

5. Will my ex-husband be notified that I am receiving benefits based on his work record?

No, the Social Security Administration will not notify him.

6. How do I apply for spousal benefits based on my ex-husband's work record?
 
Whether applying for benefits based on your work history or your ex-husband's, you must apply to receive those benefits. You may apply for benefits online at SSA.gov, by phone by calling 800-772-1213 or in person at your local Social Security office. To apply for benefits based on your ex-husband's work record, you will need to know his Social Security number. If you don't' know it, you can provide his date and place of birth and his parents' names.

(MORE: Tax and Social Security Rules for Same-Sex Couples)
 
7. May my ex-husband collect benefits based on my work record?
 
Yes. Social Security is gender neutral. The benefits criteria applies to ex-husbands as well as ex-wives.
 
8. May I collect benefits for children if my ex-husband dies?
 
Yes. If you are raising children you had with your ex-husband and he dies, you may receive benefits for their care until they are age 16. After that, they may receive benefits based on your ex-husband's work record until they are 18, or 19 and still in high school fulltime. Older children may receive benefits if they are disabled.
 
9. May I collect benefits based on my own work record at early retirement age and then on collect on my ex-husband's record when I reach Full Retirement Age?
 
Yes, but don't forget that when you receive benefits before you reach your Full Retirement Age, your benefits will be reduced. You could, for example, receive reduced benefits based on your work record at age 62, and then at 65 start receiving benefits based on your ex-husband's record.