Was your ex-spouse the primary earner? In that case, you might be eligible for a higher Social Security benefit based upon his or her work history instead of your own.

In order to qualify for a “divorced spouse” benefit you must be at least 62 years old (the age of your ex doesn’t matter), but keep in mind that, as with all Social Security benefits, if you file before your “full retirement age” (FRA), your benefit amount will be reduced. If you were born between 1943 through 1954, your FRA is the month you turn 66. If you were born in another year, find your FRA is by visiting the Social Security website.  

The maximum benefit you will receive is 50% of the amount your ex is entitled to at full retirement age.

Did Your Ex Earn Social Security?

In addition, your ex-spouse must either be: 1) receiving Social Security disability benefits, or 2) eligible for Social Security. Someone becomes eligible for Social Security by earning a minimum amount of income from at least 10 years of work in jobs where s/he had Social Security (FICA) tax taken from paychecks.

This is an important point to understand: If your ex-wife was a police officer who contributed to the state employees’ retirement plan instead of Social Security, she is not be eligible for Social Security benefits and, consequently, you are not eligible for benefits as her divorced spouse.

But Wait! There’s More…

There are additional requirements you have to meet to qualify for benefits under a former spouse:

  • You must be unmarried when you file. If you start receiving divorced spouse benefits and later re-marry, you generally lose them(1)
  • Your marriage must have lasted at least 10 years 
  • Your ex must be receiving Social Security. If s/he hasn’t filed yet, then you must be divorced at least two years
  • If you work, the so-called “earning limit” applies. This year the limit is $15,480. For every $2.00 above this amount, your benefit will be reduced by $1.00. (The “earnings limit” applies only to income from a job; investment income does not count.) (2)

Make the Most of It

If you begin a divorced spouse benefit before your FRA, Social Security will first check to see if you would get a bigger check based upon your own work history. You will receive whichever benefit is higher, and you are locked into this.

However, waiting until you are full retirement age to begin Social Security could significantly increase your benefit. This is because if you are eligible for two types of Social Security benefits- say, one based upon your own earnings record and one based on your ex-spouse’s- once you reach FRA you can choose which type you want to receive. 

For instance, let’s say that your full retirement age is 66. Based upon your own work record, your Social Security retirement benefit at FRA is $1,000 per month. Your ex-spouse’s FRA amount is $2,000. 

Your initial thought is probably, “What difference does it make which benefit I apply for? Either way, I’m going to get $1,000 per month.”

But that would be a costly mistake. Instead, you should apply for the 50% divorced spouse benefit and delay claiming your own. That’s because each year past FRA that you postpone taking your own benefit, the government pays you an 8% bonus called the “Delayed Retirement Credit” (DRC). If you play your cards right, you can increase your monthly check by a minimum of 32%! 

In the example above, the 8% DRC amounts to an extra $80 per month each year. DRCs stop once you reach age 70, so at that point you would drop the divorced spouse benefit and switch over to your own. By doing so, your monthly benefit has grown to $1,320 (4 years x $80/year).

On top of DRCs, your delayed benefit also earns the annual Cost-of-Living increases Social Security benefits receive. When these are taken into account, the boost to your benefit is even greater

Be Prepared

Don’t expect to the folks at Social Security to simply tell you the size of the benefit your ex has earned. After all, that is personal information! According to Kia Green, a spokesperson for the Social Security Administration, “The claimant’s relationship to the worker must be documented” before even an estimate of your ex-spouse’s benefit will be provided. You will probably have to prove that you were, in fact, married to this individual and subsequently divorced. 

If you plan to file for benefits by visiting your local Social Security office, bring your marriage license and divorce decree with you. If you file by phone, you might have to mail copies of these documents. For more information about the documentation you might have to provide click here.

No one Will Ever Know

One question I get all the time is, “Will my ex know I’m filing for Social Security based on her/his record?” 

Nope.

Just in case you care, it will also have absolutely no impact on the size of the benefit your ex receives. If your ex has re-married, your divorced spouse benefit will also not reduce the amount his/her new spouse is eligible to receive.

1. An example of an exception to this is if your new spouse is receiving a benefit as a widow or widower.

2. If you will reach age 66 in 2014, both the earnings limit and the reduction are different. For an explanation, click here.

Ms. Buckner is a Retirement and Financial Planning Specialist and an instructor in Franklin Templeton Investments' global Academy. The views expressed in this article are only those of Ms. Buckner or the individual commentator identified therein, and are not necessarily the views of Franklin Templeton Investments, which has not reviewed, and is not responsible for, the content. 

If you have a question for Gail Buckner and the Your $ Matters column, send them to: yourmoneymatters@gmail.com, along with your name and phone number.