If you are divorced you can collect Social Security benefits based on the earnings of your ex-spouse if certain conditions are met. The marriage must have lasted 10 years or more and you can't be remarried. The minimum age to collect benefits is 62, and the former spouse must be entitled to receive Social Security retirement or disability benefits.

Key Takeaways

  • Depending on eligibility, a divorced spouse may indeed be able to collect Social Security benefits through an ex if they were married for at least 10 years.
  • If requirements are met, and if divorced and not remarried, a former spouse can claim 50% of an ex's benefits, or 100% if/when the ex passes away.
  • If your ex hasn't applied for benefits yet, but can qualify for them, you can receive benefits as long as you have been divorced for at least two years.

How Benefits Work

In general, a former spouse is entitled to one-half of their ex's retirement benefit amount. If the spouse is deceased, the former partner will receive the person's full retirement benefit. If the former partner remarries and the second spouse dies, the person can claim benefits based on either spouse's eligible benefit. The marriage(s) that ended in divorce need(s) to have lasted 10 years or more. If one spouse died while you were still married to them, that marriage needs to have lasted at least nine months, less in rare cases.  

Even if the former spouse has remarried and the new spouse is collecting benefits based on the same employment record, the ex-partner can also collect Social Security benefits based on the same record.

However, a former spouse who remarries before age 60 cannot collect survivor benefits (unless the later marriage ends for any reason). If the former spouse remarries after age 60, they can still receive survivor benefits based on the former spouse’s record. However, the following requirements must be met:

  • The marriage lasted 10 consecutive years or more.
  • The applicant is at least 62 years old.
  • The former spouse is eligible for retirement benefits.
  • The applicant is currently not married.

If you get married while receiving benefits through your ex-spouse and they are still alive, you will no longer be eligible for those benefits.

Ex-Spouse Claim Example

Let’s assume that Cynthia and her ex-husband Peter were married for 18 years, from 1979 until 1997. On reaching her 63rd birthday, Cynthia wonders when she should begin claiming benefits, whose benefits she should claim, and the amount of monthly benefits she will receive.

One thing is for certain: The longer Cynthia waits to begin collecting, the greater the monthly payments will be on the benefits she receives from her own retirement savings plan. Furthermore, as an ex-spouse, she may not collect any amount larger than 50% of the amount her ex-husband is due.

In the past, some women signed divorce decrees in which they relinquished their rights to Social Security based on their ex-husbands' records. Those clauses are meaningless and are never enforced.

When Your Ex Isn't Collecting Benefits Yet

If your ex has not yet applied for retirement benefits but can qualify for them, you can receive benefits based on their earnings record, provided you have been divorced for at least two years.

In addition, if you are a former spouse and are eligible for either a spouse's benefit amount or your own, you may have a choice, depending on your age. If you are 62 or older, you can choose which benefit you want at your full retirement age.

When workers who are not 62 apply for spousal benefits on their ex-spouses's record, Social Security will assume it is also an application for benefits on the worker's record. The worker is eligible for the higher benefit, but cannot take just the spousal benefits and allow their own benefit amount to keep increasing until age 70.

How to Apply for a Former Spouse's Benefit

Apply for benefits online by going to SSA.gov, or find the local office and make an appointment. To apply for benefits on a former spouse's work record, you need to have that person's Social Security number or date and place of birth and parents’ names.

To protect the privacy of all parties involved, a former spouse is not notified when the application is made to apply for benefits.

The Bottom Line

If you were married for at least 10 years, you may indeed be able to collect Social Security benefits through your ex. If requirements are met, and you have not remarried, you can claim 50% of the ex's benefits, or 100% if the ex passes away.

Filing for benefits through an ex-spouse is fairly straightforward and to protect privacy, they won't be notified when you do.