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Ask the Expert: How does divorce affect Social Security benefits?

My ex and I were married for almost 25 years, and we’ve been divorced for almost 20 years. In the interim, she remarried — I think for 10 years — and again divorced. Her Social Security benefits are larger than mine. If she were to pass, would I have any claim on her benefits?


You must meet four requirements to qualify for Social Security based on a former spouse's record: 1) Your marriage lasted at least 10 years; 2) You didn't remarry before age 60; 3) You and your ex both qualify to file for Social Security (It doesn't matter whether she has yet filed for her benefit; she just needs to be eligible to do so.); 4) Your benefit based on her work record is bigger than the amount you'd collect based on your own record.

If you meet all four conditions, you can receive a spousal benefit based on your ex's work record during her lifetime, and a survivor's benefit based on her record after her death.

Her marital history since your divorce is irrelevant. Her subsequent spouse's eligibility for benefits based on her record is unaffected by your benefits as a former spouse.

One caveat: To qualify for the maximum benefit based on your ex's record, you must postpone your application for it until your own full retirement age. For example, the most you can collect as her survivor is 100% of the amount to which she was entitled based on her record. But if you claimed a survivor's benefit at age 60 — which is the earliest a widow or widower can apply — you'd only receive 71.5% of that amount.

The bottom line

People who are divorced are sometimes eligible for Social Security benefits based on their former spouses' work records.

More information

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