A: Yes, it's true — you might. Social Security operates with a philosophy that a divorced person may deserve a personal benefit, having been the long-term partner and helpmate of a member of the workforce. The benefit is similar, in fact, to the spousal benefit that is available to a person who is still married.
Basically, there are two sets of rules that determine whether you qualify. The first applies if your ex-spouse is living, and the second applies if he's deceased. Either way, it won't surprise you to learn that the rules are complicated, and you'll need to take some time getting familiar with them.
And before we go further, keep in mind that Social Security is gender neutral. Though many of its rules date to an era of one-income households — with the man working and the woman staying home and raising children — everything you'll read here concerning a divorced woman would apply equally to a divorced man.
Also, any benefits that you as a divorced spouse might receive would have no effect on the amount of benefits your ex-spouse gets.
Q: My former spouse is still living. What are the basics for that set of rules?
A: Basically, you can receive benefits based on your ex-spouse's work record if:
- Your marriage lasted 10 years or longer
- You are currently unmarried
- You're 62 or older
Any retirement benefit that you're entitled to receive based on your own work record must be lower than the benefit you'd receive from your ex-spouse's record. Basically, you collect whichever benefit is higher. You can't collect both.
Also, it doesn't matter if your ex-spouse has remarried.
In any event, before anything can happen, there's a "test" for your ex-spouse, too. He must be entitled to Social Security retirement or disability benefits. If he qualifies for those benefits even if he has not begun taking them, Social Security will allow you as the ex-wife to go ahead and take your ex-spouse benefits — providing that you've been divorced for at least two years.
Q: So how much are the benefits?
A: That will depend on how much your ex-spouse qualifies for. If you're at full retirement age, you'll be eligible for payments that are 50 percent of whatever he would get. But if you begin taking the benefits before your full retirement age, they'll be permanently reduced.
That's basically the same as what would apply if you were still married and your husband retired: You could get a spouse's benefit of 50 percent.
Q: Suppose my ex-spouse has already died? How would it work then?
A: You would have to meet these conditions:
- You are 60 or older, or 50 if you're disabled
- Your marriage lasted at least 10 years
- Your own retirement benefit would not be higher than what you could claim on your ex-spouse's record
- And there's a special twist concerning your marital status. If you remarry before age 60 (or 50 if you're disabled), you can't receive such a benefit. But if you remarry after 60 (50 if disabled), you can
Q: What if there are children involved?
A: You can get benefits on an ex-spouse's record at any age if you're caring for that ex-spouse's child, who is also your natural or legally adopted child and who is younger than 16. Your benefits will continue until the child reaches 16 or is no longer disabled.
Importantly, you can receive this benefit even if you weren't married to your ex-spouse for 10 years.
Q: How about people who've had multiple marriages and divorces? Are they eligible for benefits from ex-spouses?
A: The answer is yes, although it will depend on how long the marriages lasted and other circumstances. But, of course, they can't collect multiple benefits on the records of multiple ex-spouses. Just one.
Q: In my ex-husband's case, there's actually another ex-spouse. If she applies before me, will I get nothing?
A: No. With Social Security, it doesn't matter who gets there first. There isn't just one benefit available. If you meet the qualifications, you get a benefit, regardless of what another ex-spouse has or hasn't done.
As I said, the rules are complex. For more information, you'd do well to read a 23-page booklet that Social Security publishes, What Every Woman Should Know. In addition to divorce, it delves into such subjects as domestic violence and your status with Social Security if you become a widow.
Q: So, what do I have to do to actually collect an ex-spouse's benefit?
A: Go online to Social Security or call 1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778).
Be prepared to provide documents that establish your right to the benefit. You'll likely be asked for your birth certificate, marriage license and divorce decree. Plus you'll need your ex-spouse's Social Security number. If you don't know it, you'll be asked for his date and place of birth and the names of his parents, information which will allow Social Security to look the number up.
Stan Hinden, a former columnist for the Washington Post, wrote How to Retire Happy: The 12 Most Important Decisions You Must Make Before You Retire. Have a question? Check out the Social Security Mailbox archive. If you don't find your answer there, send an email to the Social Security Mailbox.