How Your Ex Could Boost Your Social Security

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Katja Rivera, 64, is a massage therapist and theater manager in Berkeley, Calif., who says she’s never made more than about $30,000 a year. When her two daughters were small, she sometimes earned much less.

But Rivera was married for 10 years to a man who always earned way more than her. When Rivera retires in a few years, she expects to receive a Social Security check based on her ex’s higher earnings.

Many divorced people don’t realize they can get Social Security benefits from their ex-spouse’s work history, says William Meyer, founder of Social Security Solutions, a website that helps people figure out when and how to apply for Social Security. Those who are aware of the benefits often misunderstand crucial details and can make decisions that cost them tens of thousands of dollars over their lifetime, he says.

Here are the basics: You may qualify for benefits based on your ex’s work history if your marriage lasted at least 10 years. Any benefits you receive will not affect the amounts your ex, your ex’s current spouse, or any other ex-spouses of your ex will receive.

However, the rules for these benefits depend on whether your ex is alive or dead.

When your ex is alive: divorced spouse benefits

If your ex is still alive and you haven’t remarried, you may be eligible for divorced spouse benefits. This benefit could represent up to 50% of what the ex would receive at full retirement age, which is currently between 66 and 67 years old.

You will only get a Divorced Spouse Benefit if it is greater than the amount you earned on your own work record at the time of application. Social Security pays the higher of the two amounts, not both. Divorced spouse benefits end if you remarry.

To apply, you must be at least 62 years old. Your ex must also be at least 62 or receiving Social Security disability benefits. If your ex is eligible for retirement benefits but has not started them, at least two years must have passed since the divorce for you to be eligible for a divorced spouse’s benefit.

However, applying for Social Security too early has significant costs. Your benefits are permanently reduced if you apply before your own full retirement age. Your payout would also be subject to the earnings test, which withholds $1 for every $2 you earn over a certain amount: for 2023, that number is $21,240.

It is important to make the right choice, because you cannot switch from a divorced spouse’s benefit to your own benefit later, even if yours is ultimately greater. (Your own retirement allowance may change over time if you continue to work. Additionally, you can earn “deferred retirement credits” which increase your retirement allowance by 8% for each year of application deferral, between full retirement age and age 70, when benefits are maximum.)

When your ex is dead: divorced survivor benefits

If Rivera’s ex predeceases her, she might be eligible for a different payment: the Divorced Survivor’s Benefit.

This benefit is more generous in many ways. The divorced survivor benefit can be up to 100% of what your ex was getting. You can apply for this benefit as early as age 60 or age 50 if you are disabled. As with divorced spouse benefits, the amount will be reduced and subject to income testing if you start before your own full retirement age.

But you can be married and still get divorced survivor benefits based on an ex’s work record, as long as you remarried at age 60 or older. Additionally, you can switch from a divorced survivor benefit. For example, you could start with a divorced survivor benefit at age 60, then switch to your own retirement benefit at age 70, if it is higher.

You may need to call your ex

Rivera is convinced that half of her ex’s benefits will be more than hers, even though she waited to apply until her own retirement pension peaked at age 70. To be sure, though, she should ask her ex to share her Social Security Statement — something she’s not comfortable doing.

You can easily check your own income history and expected benefit amounts by creating a “my social security” account on These numbers can help you calculate how to maximize your benefit, using free claim calculators like this one from AARP or more sophisticated paid calculators, such as Social Security Solutions (from $20) or Maximize My Social Security (from $39).

But you can’t get similar access to an ex’s file, Meyer notes. Without asking your ex to share their statement, you may not know how much your divorce benefits are worth until you apply. This can make it difficult to plan ahead and maximize your lifetime Social Security income, Meyer says.

“Even if you don’t want to call your ex, it might be the only time it’s worth calling,” he says.

This article was written by NerdWallet and was originally published by The Associated Press.

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