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3 Things to Know About Social Security if You’re Divorced

Did you know Social Security spousal benefits extend to certain ex-spouses who have gotten divorced?

Social Security benefits currently provide half or more of the income received in retirement for 69% of unmarried Americans and 48% of married couples, according to the Social Security Administration (SSA). So it's a good idea to know as much as you can about the benefits you're entitled to receive, especially if you're single.

Wedding cake with bride and groom facing away from each other.
Wedding cake with bride and groom facing away from each other.

Image source: Getty Images.

Divorced after 10 years and single? You may be eligible for spousal benefits

You may be eligible for a spousal benefit if you are currently single but were divorced after 10 years of marriage or more. You may be entitled to claim Social Security spousal benefits on your ex-partner's work record. For you to do so, your ex-spouse must be eligible for Social Security, and must be at least 62 years of age.

Although folks become eligible to receive Social Security at 62, it's possible that your ex may not choose to start receiving benefits then. Why? Because recipients receive roughly 8% more in Social Security benefits for every year they delay receiving benefits between 62 and the age of 70. Plus people don't reach full retirement age (FRA) until sometime between the age of 65 (for those born in 1937 or before) and 67 (for those born in 1960 and later), with incremental hikes for those born between those years.

But whether your ex is receiving Social Security or not is of no concern to you as a divorced spouse. As long as your ex-spouse qualifies for benefits and is 62 or older, you may be eligible for spousal benefits, whether your ex is receiving them or not. Your ex-spouse's marital status doesn't matter. They can be remarried, divorced again, or have stayed single -- it doesn't have any bearing on your ability to file a claim, or how much it will be. Nor will your claim have any effect on the amount of your ex's benefits. If they've remarried, the new partner's potential benefit amounts are not affected either.

If your ex has not yet applied for Social Security benefits, however, there is a requirement that you need to have been divorced a minimum of two years to receive the spousal benefit.

So far, so clear. But there are three important things to know if you meet those qualifications.

Three important requirements

  1. You can't claim spousal benefits if you are remarried. If, however, you remarried and then divorced again, you can claim spousal benefits from a divorced partner, as long as the marriage lasted at least 10 years.

  2. You must be 62 or older to apply for spousal benefits.

  3. You must be entitled to a benefit less than your ex's work could qualify you for.

How are Social Security benefits calculated?

So how do you know whether your benefit would be less than the benefit you'd receive by claiming on your ex's work record? First you'll need to find your own benefit amount, which the SSA calculates based on two things: your work history and your earnings history.

To receive Social Security, folks need a work history in which they accrue a total of 40 lifetime work credits. A work credit is a metric based on income. Last year, for example, workers earned one lifetime work credit for every $1,320 they earned. That's going up this year: workers will earn one lifetime work credit for every $1,360 earned.

Even if someone brings home a cool million per year, though, they can't earn the entire 40 work credits needed in a year. In fact, four is the most anyone can receive in one year.

Once you qualify for the work credits, your earnings history kicks in to determine the amount you're entitled to. The SSA calculates benefits on the 35 highest-earning, inflation-adjusted years. If you've worked less than 35 years, $0 is averaged into the monthly payout calculations for each year under 35.

How are Social Security spousal benefits calculated?

Now, those calculations are for an individual receiving Social Security. A spousal benefit can be determined after computing both your work history and earnings history, as well as your ex's work history and earnings history.

If you qualify, the benefit for a divorced spouse is 50% of your ex's full retirement amount if you begin taking benefits at your FRA. So if your ex is eligible for $2,000 every month in Social Security benefits, you'd receive $1,000. If your ex delays retirement past their FRA, the concomitant increase in benefit amounts they'll get is not applied to your spousal benefit.

What if you're eligble under your own work and earnings history and your ex's? Do you have to select which one to claim on? No. The SSA will pay your own retirement benefit first and then it computes your potential benefit from your ex's work and earnings history. Once it has both, the SSA will adjust the benefit so you receive the higher amount.

People who are eligible for both, have hit their FRA, and have a birthday prior to January 2, 1954 have an important option to maximize their Social Security benefits too: You can decide to get just the benefit for divorced spouses and delay taking your own. That way you can receive the 8% yearly hike in your eventual benefit amount between your FRA and 70.

But if your birthday is January 2, 1954 or later, that choice has been phased out unfortunately. By filing for either retirement or spousal benefits, you'll be telling the SSA you want to file for all Social Security benefits for which you're eligible.

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