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What Divorced People Need to Know About Social Security

The end of a marriage doesn’t necessarily end eligibility for family benefits

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More than 4 in 10 Americans nearing retirement age do not know that divorced people can collect Social Security benefits based on their ex-spouse’s earnings, according the 2024 edition of insurance and financial firm MassMutual's annual survey on Social Security knowledge. Those numbers don’t surprise Natalie Colley.

“It’s just become abundantly clear that Social Security is not something that people know, and it should be,” says Colley, a certified divorce financial analyst and lead adviser at Francis Financial, a New York firm that specializes in helping women deal with the financial fallout from a marital split.

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“Many women who come to our office don’t even realize that they are eligible for their ex-spouse’s benefit,” she says. “Even those who do are really concerned that their ex-spouse will be very angry about it, because they’re under the false assumption that their ex-spouse will be notified when they file or that their ex-spouse’s benefit will somehow be reduced.”

If you are age 62 or older and were married to your ex for at least 10 years, you may be able to collect monthly payments equivalent to about one-third to one-half of your former spouse’s Social Security benefit, as calculated from their lifetime earnings history. (The equation is different if your ex is deceased, but we’ll get to that.) 

Income gap a factor

You’ll get a divorced-spouse benefit only if it exceeds your own retirement benefit, determined by your own earnings record. If you qualify for two types of benefit, the Social Security Administration (SSA) doesn’t combine them but pays the higher amount. 

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That means ex-spouse benefits come into play if one partner was a much bigger earner than the other. And they can be an important part of retirement planning.

“With the rise of ‘gray divorces,’ pension plans, 401(k) plans and spousal benefits from Social Security all need to be reviewed and reevaluated, as money is being left on the table for some,” says David Freitag, a financial planning consultant with MassMutual.

The benefit rules are strictly gender-neutral — at least they have been since 1983, when Congress codified equal Social Security treatment of ex-husbands and ex-wives. (The rules are also applicable to same-sex couples who marry and divorce as a result of the Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell decision recognizing marriage equality.)

In practice, they primarily affect women, who earn less than men on average and are more likely to have spent time as stay-at-home parents or caregivers for older relatives. According to the most recent SSA data, women make up 95 percent of the more than 657,000 people receiving spousal or survivor benefits on the basis of a marriage that ended.

“The people who are reaching Social Security eligibility age right now are still more of a generation where the likelihood was even higher that those women would drop out of the workforce to take care of children,” Colley says. “You’d have a single-earning household. We’re still seeing it.”

Here are answers to some key questions about Social Security benefits for divorced people.

Why does Social Security pay benefits to divorced spouses?

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. “It is an extension of the same benefit that married couples enjoy,” Freitag says.

“It is a way of providing equity and nondiscrimination,” he adds. “Divorced partners should not be punished and have all of their spousal and survivor benefits nullified just because a long-term marriage did not last. They had a functioning family unit for 10 years or longer.” 

In fact, divorced-spouse benefits are determined using the same percentage scale as those for current spouses. A key difference is that a current spouse need only have been married for a year to qualify. In cases of divorce, Freitag says, “the 10-year rule helps to keep ‘convenience’ weddings for monetary gain separate from ‘real’ relationships that did not work out.”

How do I qualify?

In most cases, you must meet all these criteria to be eligible for divorced-spouse benefits.

  • You are at least 62 years old.
  • You and your ex were married for at least 10 years.
  • Your ex qualifies for retirement benefits or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI).
  • Your own retirement benefit would not be higher than the ex-spouse’s benefit.
  • You have not remarried.

I can’t be remarried?

Except in very limited circumstances, you lose eligibility for ex-spouse benefits on the earnings record of a living former mate if you marry again. If the later marriage ends due to divorce, death or annulment, you may again qualify for benefits, based on either marriage.

If your ex is deceased, you may be eligible for survivor benefits on their record even if you have remarried (see below).

What if my ex gets married again?

That doesn’t matter. Your former spouse’s marital status has no bearing on your eligibility for divorced-spouse benefits. 


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How do I apply?

You can apply for divorced-spouse benefits online, by phone (800-772-1213) or in person at your local Social Security office. If you choose the latter, you may want to call ahead of time to schedule an appointment.

You will need to provide your birth certificate or other proof of birth; your marriage certificate and divorce decree; proof of U.S. citizenship or legal residency; and copies of W-2s or self-employment tax returns. Other than the tax records, these must be the original documents; Social Security will return them to you.

You’ll be asked for other details about your work and family history and about the former marriage, including your ex-spouse’s Social Security number. If you don’t know it, you may be asked for information the SSA can use to look it up, such as your ex’s date and place of birth and the names of their parents.

Spouses going through a divorce “need to be making sure that they keep crucial documentation to make that application process easier,” Colley says — especially if they are still many years away from the age for claiming benefits.

“It’s just part of a going-through-divorce checklist,” she says. “Get it now while you’re still communicating, because you may need it in the future and it’s going to make your life a whole lot easier.”

Divorced-spouse benefits by the numbers

As of December 2022, the most recent data available, about 1 in 9 adults collecting Social Security family or survivor benefits were doing so as the former spouse of someone who is (or was) getting retirement or disability benefits. Here’s how the numbers break down.

Spouses of retired workers

Total: 2,022,892 (average benefit: $901/month)

Divorced: 179,306 (average benefit: $977/month)

  • Women: 165,373
  • Men: 13,933

Spouses of workers with disabilities

Total: 90,972 (average benefit: $408/month)

Divorced: 10,786 (average benefit: $433/month)

  • Women: 9,053
  • Men: 1,733

Surviving spouses (eligible at age 60)

Total: 3,516,872 (average benefit: $1,705/month)

Divorced: 426,477 (average benefit: $1,795/month)

  • Women: 411,604
  • Men: 14,873

Surviving spouses with disabilities (eligible at age 50)

Total: 211,301 (average benefit: $893/month)

Divorced: 31,848 (average benefit: $941/month)

  • Women: 30,266
  • Men: 1,582

Surviving spouses caring for young or disabled children (eligible at any age)

Total: 111,784 (average benefit: $1,232/month )

Divorced: 8,951 (average benefit: $1,247/month)

  • Women: 8,403
  • Men: 548

Source: Social Security Administration, Annual Statistical Supplement, 2023

How much can I receive?

Benefits for a divorced spouse are calculated the same way as those for a current spouse. At 62, the minimum claiming age, you can collect 32.5 percent of your ex-spouse’s full benefit amount. The percentage goes up incrementally for each month you wait, maxing out at 50 percent if you file for benefits at your full retirement age (FRA), which is 67 for people born in 1960 and after.

Do divorced-spouse benefits affect my ex’s Social Security?

No. Your benefit does not come out of your ex-spouse’s payment. They will collect the retirement or disability benefit they’re entitled to receive, based on their own work and earnings history.

The same is true for any benefits paid to your ex’s current spouse, or to any other former spouses. Social Security can pay multiple benefits on a single worker’s earnings record. Any current or former spouse who meets the qualifications for benefits can receive them. 

What if my ex hasn’t claimed Social Security yet?

Unlike a current spouse, a divorced person can get benefits if their ex is eligible for retirement benefits but has not yet claimed them. 

However, if your ex hasn’t claimed, there’s a twist to the eligibility rules: In addition to the age and marital criteria noted above, you must have been divorced for at least two years. That waiting period does not apply if your ex is already collecting Social Security.

Can my ex stop me from getting divorced-spouse benefits?

No. Colley says many people going through divorce worry that Social Security “is just going to be another asset, another point of negotiation, another area that their ex is going to be very angry about.” But your ex cannot prevent you from applying for or, if you qualify, receiving benefits on their record. 

Even if a soon-to-be ex wants you to relinquish benefit rights as part of the divorce agreement, such clauses “are worthless and are never enforced,” according to the SSA.

Does my ex have to know?

No. The SSA will not notify your former spouse if you apply for benefits on their record. If your ex asks, the agency can tell them whether you or anyone else is drawing a benefit on their record, and the full benefit amount, but it will not reveal personal information, such as your whereabouts.

Can I get an estimate of what I’d get as a divorced spouse?

Yes. “If you are on good terms [with your ex], this can be an easy phone call,” Freitag notes — just ask them about their benefit amount and use the SSA’s spouse-benefit calculator to see what proportion of it you can claim at various ages. 

If that’s not a comfortable course of action, call the SSA’s 800 number or visit your local office. If you provide proof of the marriage and divorce and your and your ex’s Social Security number, an SSA representative should be able to provide an estimate of your prospective benefit.

Can I claim an ex-spouse benefit first and switch to my retirement benefit later?

Probably not. Social Security used to let people eligible for benefits as both a spouse and a retiree file what's called a "restricted application" and choose one or the other. Using this strategy, a beneficiary could collect spouse or ex-spouse benefits while waiting until age 70 to get their maximum retirement benefit. But Congress phased out this option as part of a 2015 budget law. 

Now when such “dually entitled” individuals file for Social Security, they are considered to be filing for both benefits, and the SSA will pay the higher of the benefit amounts. You can only file a restricted application for spouse or ex-spouse benefits if you meet one of these exceptions.

  • You are caring for a child from the marriage who is under age 16 or has a disability.
  • You are also entitled to SSDI.

What if I’m still working?

Like retirement and survivor benefits, spouse and ex-spouse benefits are subject to Social Security’s earnings test. If you are below full retirement age and continue to earn income from work, your benefits may be temporarily reduced.

In 2024, the earnings test for people who will reach FRA in a later year is $22,320. Social Security will deduct $1 in divorced-spouse benefits for every $2 you earn above that cap. If you will reach FRA this year, the limit is $59,520 and the reduction is $1 for every $3 over the cap.

Once you hit FRA, the earnings test no longer applies. There is no benefit reduction no matter your income, and Social Security increases your monthly benefit amount so that over time you recoup the past withholding.

What if my ex is deceased?

Divorced people can receive survivor benefits of 71.5 percent to 100 percent of the late former spouse’s benefit amount, depending on your age when you claim. In most cases, you still must have been married for 10 years. Your survivor benefits do not affect those paid to an ex’s widow or widower, and vice versa.

The eligibility criteria for ex-spouse survivor benefits differ in several important ways from those based on a living ex.

  • The minimum eligibility age is generally 60, 50 if the surviving ex-spouse is disabled.
  • The age and length-of-marriage requirements are waived if you are caring for a child of your ex-spouse who is under age 16 or disabled and is entitled to receive children’s benefits on your ex’s record. 
  • You can collect survivor benefits if you have remarried, provided that the marriage took place after you turned 60 (50 if disabled).

Another key difference: Surviving ex-spouses can file a restricted application, choosing to take the survivor or retirement benefit first and switching later to the other. This creates options for maximizing what you get from Social Security over time, bringing in income from one benefit while letting the other grow. 

You cannot apply for survivor benefits online, only by phone or in person at a Social Security office. If you were receiving divorced-spouse benefits before your ex died and you meet the criteria for survivor benefits, you’ll be automatically switched from one to the other once the death is reported to the SSA.

Full retirement age for survivors, at which you can collect 100 percent of your ex’s Social Security benefit, is between 66 and 67, depending on your year of birth. Like FRA for spousal and retirement benefits, it is in the process of rising to 67, but at a different pace. 

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