How to Get Your Ex-Spouse's Social Security Benefits

Editors' pick: Originally published Dec. 1.

Marriage, it's said, comes and goes, but divorce is forever. Evidence of that can be found in the fact that, even if you've been divorced for decades, you can still receive Social Security benefits based on an ex-spouse's earning record.

Filing to receive an ex-spouse's benefits can increase your Social Security benefits if you were out of the workforce for a long while being a stay-at-home parent. It may also make sense if you didn't work much, because you were caring for ailing parents or experiencing a lengthy illness or spell of unemployment.

The difference can be significant. The minimum Social Security benefit for a long-term low-wage earner in 2017 is $885 per month, while the maximum benefit for a long-term high earner is $3,538.

"If you're divorced and your former spouse had a more lucrative work history so they'd get a large benefit, it's to your benefit to collect based on their work history," explains Jose Reynoso, a partner with New York-based Clarfeld Financial Advisors.

Before you rush to file for your ex's benefits, there are a number of limitations to consider. First, you only can receive half the benefit your ex is entitled to. If you and your former spouse have a roughly equivalent earnings history, it's not likely to help to seek half of your ex's benefits.

Also, this option is only available if you were married for at least ten years, have been divorced for at least two and have not remarried. Does this suggest that the timing of marital events and financial security in retirement may be related? It does.

"If you're going to be depending on your former spouse's work history, don't get divorced before ten years," Reynoso says. You may also want to consider whether and when you want to remarry if you're retired and receiving a Social Security benefit based on your ex-spouse's earnings.

There are other restrictions. Obviously, you have to be at least age 62 or more to receive Social Security retirement benefits. But to get half your ex-spouse's benefits, your ex also must be age 62 or older.

Some things aren't important. It doesn't matter whether your ex is remarried or not. And you don't need your ex's permission, or even to let him or her know. It won't affect your ex's benefits.

Nor does it matter how many times you've been married. "If you've been divorced four times, you can take the highest earning spouse's benefits, providing you meet the requirements," says Richard Stieglitz, a tax partner and CPA with New York accounting firm Anchin, Block & Anchin.

It's important not to confuse this with the technique of filing for a restricted application of spousal benefits. This is a strategy formerly popular with well-heeled married retirees who could afford not to receive benefits until age 70. It exploits the fact that the longer you wait to file, the more your monthly benefit increases. Instead of filing for their own benefits, these retirees could receive a spouse's benefit starting as early as age 66, while their own ultimate monthly benefit amount continued to grow.

The restricted application of spousal benefits was largely made irrelevant by a change that limits it to people who were already 62 on January 1, 2016. Because the number of those people still aged 66 or younger is small and getting smaller, the technique is less commonly used today and will soon vanish completely.

Generally, speaking the decision about when to file for Social Security benefits has gotten simpler as loopholes like the restricted application of spousal benefits have closed. Today, unless you expect a shorter-than-average lifespan, based on family history or other factors, it's generally best to wait until age 70.

But if you've been married and divorced, at least for no less than ten years to someone about your own age who earned considerably more than you, you may want to consider filing for your ex-spouse's benefits. "By and large," says Laurie Samay, a Certified Financial Planner with Palisades Hudson Financial Group in Scarsdale, N.Y., "divorcees will receive either their own retirement benefits or the spousal benefits to which they are entitled, whichever is greater." 

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