Even if you haven’t spoken to your ex for years, you may be eligible for benefits based on his or her earnings record. If you left the workforce to care for children or aging parents, or simply earned a lot less than your former spouse, this provision could dramatically bump up your benefits.
To claim either spousal or survivor benefits, you must have been married for at least 10 years and not be entitled to a higher benefit based on your own record. In addition, you must be at least 62 and unmarried. You’ll lose the spousal benefit if you remarry, although you can reapply if you get divorced again or your second spouse dies.
You can collect spousal benefits even if your ex hasn’t applied for benefits, as long as he or she is at least 62 and you’ve been divorced for at least two years. You don’t even have to tell your ex that you’re applying for benefits based on his or her record. In addition, your spousal benefits will have no effect on the benefits your ex (or your ex’s new husband or wife) receives. You will, however, need to provide the Social Security Administration with a copy of your divorce decree, and it’s helpful to have your ex’s Social Security number, too.
You can increase your lifetime benefits by delaying your claim. If you wait until you reach full retirement age, you’ll be eligible for 50 percent of your ex’s benefits at his or her full retirement age. You can apply earlier, but your benefits will be reduced by between 7 percent and 8 percent for each year before your full retirement age.
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Divorced spouses who have their own work history can take advantage of the “restricting an application” strategy used by married couples — that is, after you reach full retirement age, claim 50 percent of your ex’s benefits, based on your former spouse’s earnings. This will enable your own benefits to earn the delayed-retirement credit. When you turn 70, you can switch back to your own, now-larger benefits. Again, this strategy will have no effect on your ex’s benefits.
Divorced spouses are also eligible for survivor benefits, as long as the marriage lasted 10 years or more. If your ex dies, you’re eligible for 100 percent of his or her payout. Remarriage won’t affect your eligibility as long as you’re at least 60 (or age 50 if you’re totally disabled). You can switch back to your own benefits at 70 or earlier if that would result in a larger monthly payment.
Sandra Block is a senior associate editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine. Send your questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. And for more on this and similar money topics, visit Kiplinger.com.