November 27, 2017

If you’re divorced, it’s possible to claim Social Security spousal and survivor benefits from your ex-spouse, and to keep the entire matter private. The Social Security Administration (SSA) will not inform your former spouse about the application or the payment of benefits.

Gaining access to this benefit can provide an extra boost in income when it’s most needed, and can be especially important for spouses who were the lower earners in the marriage.

To be able to claim the Social Security payment, you must have been married for at least 10 years and divorced for at least two years. You must be 62 years old or older and your ex-spouse must be eligible for retirement or disability benefits.

There are more than 160,000 divorced Social Security recipients taking advantage of this little-known provision in the law, according to the SSA.

If you remarry, you generally will not be able to collect benefits on your former spouse’s record unless your later marriage ends by death, divorce or annulment. If you have been married two or three times for at least 10 years each time, you can choose the former spouse with the highest benefit. Don’t laugh. There are people who fit that category — not just celebrities.

What if Your Ex-Spouse Has Died?

In the case of an ex-spouse who is deceased, you may be able to collect benefits on his or her record if you are at least 60 years old (50 years old if you’re disabled) and you were married to him or her for at least 10 years.

When you visit your Social Security office or apply online, be prepared to provide a birth certificate, proof of citizenship, W-2 forms or self-employment tax returns for the past year, the marriage certificate and a certified copy of your final divorce decree.

If you’re eligible for a retirement benefit based on your own record, SSA will pay that benefit first. But if the benefit on the ex-spouse’s record is higher, a claimant will get a combination of benefits that equals a higher amount.

Here’s how it works: Let’s say an ex-wife has a full Social Security benefit of $1,000 a month. She files for her own retirement benefit at her full retirement age of 66.

Assume her ex-husband gets, or is entitled to, $2,500 a month. The wife is eligible to receive one-half of his monthly payment at her full retirement age.

SSA will divide his benefit by two, which equals $1,250.

Then, SSA subtracts her monthly $1,000 from his monthly $1,250 which equals $250. The SSA adds that $250 to the wife’s own retirement benefit of $1,000, and the combination of benefits equals the higher amount of $1,250.

If a former spouse is eligible but has not applied for retirement benefits, he or she can still qualify to receive the payments.

You also can choose to receive only the divorced spouse’s benefits now and delay receiving your own retirement benefits until a later date. If your retirement benefits are delayed past age 66, you’ll receive a higher benefit by delaying the start date.

And according to the SSA, the amount of benefits you receive will have no effect on the Social Security income your ex-spouse or his or her current spouse may receive.

© 2017