Surprising Ways Divorce Affects Your Social Security Benefits

If you were worried about losing your Social Security benefits in your divorce, we’ve got good news.
Updated May 1, 2024
Fact checked
couple signing divorce paperwork

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Getting a divorce is often thought of as solely an emotional decision, but it’s far more complex than that. It comes with many logistical and financial questions, some of which are easier to answer than others.

One such question is what may happen to your benefits if you end your marriage. Fortunately, as long as you avoid throwing your money away in retirement, you won’t be left in a lurch. 

Here’s everything you need to know about claiming a divorced spouse’s Social Security benefits.

Can you claim your ex’s Social Security benefit?

Vitalii Vodolazskyi/Adobe Social security benefits form

First things first, you’ll need to determine whether or not you’re entitled to a portion of your former partner’s Social Security benefits.

If you were married at least 10 years, are at least 62 years old, and haven’t yet remarried, you’ll likely be eligible. Additionally, your spouse’s Social Security benefit must be greater than your own to qualify.

Will your ex’s benefits be reduced?

LIGHTFIELD STUDIOS/Adobe couple sitting on couch after quarrel

If you take advantage of divorced spouse benefits, your former partner’s Social Security won’t be impacted at all.

In fact, they won’t even know you’ve applied for benefits unless you tell them. They’ll still receive the full amount to which they’re entitled. The same is true for you if they collect Social Security based on your work history. Neither of you will get less just because the other person gets something too.

Their Social Security benefits could be reduced for other reasons. They might earn too much money from regular wages or separate retirement distributions, or they could have their Social Security income withheld if they owe you alimony or child support payments. 

But none of that has anything to do with you receiving Social Security benefits based on their work history.

Can you claim both your and your ex’s benefits?

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You may qualify to receive Social Security benefits on your own, in addition to qualifying for a portion of your ex’s benefits. But double the eligibility doesn’t equal double the benefits.

Instead, the SSA looks at whose work history would grant you the higher benefit amount. If you’d earn more through divorced spouse benefits than your own, the SSA will pay your own Social Security benefit first. Then, they’ll pay you the difference using spousal benefits generated by your former partner’s work history.

Essentially, the SSA doesn’t make you choose one benefit or the other, but they won’t let you game the system, either. You’ll get as much as you’re entitled to receive — not a penny less, not a penny more.

What if your ex hasn’t started receiving benefits?

Masson/Adobe hand holds phone with information about the balance

The good news here is that you don’t have to wait for your ex to draw on their own Social Security before you can start receiving payments yourself. You won’t be able to apply right away, though.

For divorcees in this scenario, you’ll need to wait two consecutive years — and stay divorced the entire time — before you can get divorced spouse benefits. If you can’t afford to wait two years for that additional income, look into ways to make extra money in the meantime.

Are you eligible for survivor’s benefits?

Lane Erickson/Adobe Social Security Statement for Retirement Planning Payment

In the unfortunate event that your spouse — either current or former — passes away, you may be eligible for survivor’s benefits. Qualifications for these benefits are a little different, however.

If you were married at the time of death, you’ll need to have been married for at least nine months. There are exceptions to this, though, if your spouse’s death was accidental or occurred during military service. If you were divorced, you’ll need to have been married for at least 10 years.

Additionally, you don’t need to wait until age 62 to start receiving survivor’s benefits. If you have a disability that started within seven years of your spouse’s death, you can receive benefits as early as age 50. If you don’t have a disability, you can file for benefits once you turn 60.

There’s no minimum age requirement for widows and widowers caring for a deceased partner’s child, as long as that child is under 16 or has a disability.

Can you still get spousal benefits if you remarry? Smiling couple dancing on their wedding day

The short answer is, it depends.

If you’re receiving survivor’s benefits, you can safely remarry after age 60 (or after age 50, if you have a disability) without any impact on your eligibility. Nothing says you can’t get remarried sooner, of course, but you’ll lose out on your survivor’s benefits if you do.

Remarriage affects divorced couples a little differently, though. If your former partner ties the knot with a new beau, it won’t jeopardize your benefit eligibility. But if you remarry, there’s a good chance you’ll lose your divorced spouse benefits.

How much will you get in divorced spouse or survivor’s benefits?

Bondarau/Adobe White paper envelope with money

Your full benefit amount depends in large part on how soon you apply and on the type of benefits you’re receiving.

For divorced spouse benefits, you can receive up to 50% of your spouse’s benefit amount. If you’re a widow or widower, you can receive up to 100% of the deceased’s benefit amount. But in each case, you’ll receive reduced benefits if you apply before your full retirement age — and those benefits will be reduced for life.

If at any point your spousal benefits aren’t enough to cover your expenses, there are several ways to supplement your Social Security income. Be careful, though. The SSA may lower your benefit amount if you earn too much from other sources.

How do you apply for these benefits?

Andrey Popov/Adobe person hand filling social security benefits form

If your former spouse is still living, the application process is fairly straightforward, although you will need to gather a few documents ahead of time.

Make sure you have your U.S. birth certificate or proof of citizenship, your prior year W-2 or tax return, and documents related to your marriage and divorce. When you have the necessary paperwork, you can apply online, over the phone, or in person at your local Social Security office.

If you’re seeking survivor’s benefits, you’ll need to call the SSA directly and request an appointment before you can apply.

Bottom line

andranik123/Adobe Couple with divorce contract and rings on desk

Losing your spouse through divorce doesn’t negate your ability to collect the Social Security benefits to which you’re entitled. There are stipulations to be aware of, however, like the age at which you can claim those benefits and the timeline for remarriage.

As restrictive as these stipulations may seem, try to incorporate them into your overall financial plan. If it’s too soon for you to collect divorced spouse or survivor’s benefits, for example, don’t assume you’ll never receive them. Instead, develop a strategy that allows for adjustments at different life stages so you can reduce your money stress.

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Author Details

Sarah Sheehan Sarah Sheehan is a writer, educator, and analyst who focuses on the impact of health, gender, and geography on financial equity. Her ultimate goal? To live beyond the confines of chasing the next dollar — and to teach everyone else how to do the same.

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