A reader recently asked if she could collect Social Security benefits based on her ex-spouse’s earnings history. She had been married to him for nine years and seven months.
Unfortunately, the answer was not what she wanted to hear. In order to be able to collect spousal benefits based on an ex-spouse’s earnings record, you must have been married for 10 years or longer. Even one day short of 10 years will disqualify you for divorced spouse benefits.
Qualifying for Divorced Spouse Benefits:
In addition to being married for 10 years, you must meet the following requirements to collect divorced spousal benefits:
- You must be unmarried at the time you apply for divorced spouse benefits,
- You must be age 62 or older,
- The benefit that you are entitled to receive based on your own work must be less than the benefit you will receive based on your ex-spouse’s work history, and
- You must be entitled to Social Security retirement or disability benefits (i.e., you must have earned enough credits on your own work history)
There are a couple of other rules you will need to keep in mind regarding divorced spouse benefits. First, you must be divorced for at least two years before you can collect benefits based on an ex-spouse’s earnings record. Second, you can not be remarried and collect benefits on an ex-spouse’s earnings record. However, if your marriage ends (due to death or divorce), you can then go back and collect on an ex-spouse’s earnings if you were married to that person for at least 10 years.
Which Benefit: Yours or Your Ex-Spouse’s?
Also, if you are eligible for Social Security retirement benefits based on your own work history, then Social Security will award you the highest benefit you qualify for, whether it’s your own benefit or the spousal benefit. Keep in mind that the spousal benefit is generally half of the benefit your ex-spouse will collect, so unless he/she had much higher earnings than your own (or you did not work for many years while raising a family), your benefit will most likely be higher than half of your ex-spouse’s benefit.
If you are at full retirement age, you have the choice of collecting either your own benefit or the spousal benefit, even if your benefit would be higher. Why would you elect the lower spousal benefit? By electing to take the spousal benefit instead of your own, you allow your own benefit to continue accruing credits, which will result in a higher benefit at a later date. This can be a good strategy to increase your lifetime Social Security benefits.
For more spousal and divorced spouse strategies, please read Social Security’s Gift to Married Couples: The Spousal Benefit.