Q&A: Claiming divorced spousal benefits

Dear Liz: My son is 59, and his ex-wife died approximately 12 years ago. She was a nurse and paid more into Social Security than he has. Is he entitled to her Social Security benefits as indicated in your article? How does he file and get more information? Must he wait until he is 62?

Answer: If their marriage lasted at least 10 years, he could begin divorced survivor benefits as early as age 60, or age 50 if he is disabled. (He can remarry at age 60 or later and still receive survivor benefits.)

Benefits are reduced if he applies before his full retirement age, which will be 67. Also, starting before full retirement age means the benefits are subject to the earnings test that withholds $1 in benefits for every $2 earned over a certain amount, which in 2023 will be $21,240.

If he earns too much to make starting early worthwhile, he could apply for divorced survivor benefits at age 67, when the earnings test goes away. His own retirement benefit could continue to grow until age 70, and he could switch at that point if his own benefit is larger.

But he’d be smart to consult a financial planner or use a Social Security strategy site, such as Maximize My Social Security or Social Security Solutions, to craft the best approach.

He can call Social Security’s toll free number at (800) 772-1213 for more information.

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  1. meredith baker says

    My MIL and FIL were married over 11 years. They divorced at age 32 and my MIL remarried at age 42. They are both now 82 years old and MIL’s husband is 93 and in poor health. When MIL’s husband dies she does not get his pension. Her current SS is $850, her current husband’s SS is $1200 and my FIL’s SS is $25oo a month. She is convinced that when her current husband dies she will be eligible for her Ex-husbands $2500 a month. I think that only happens when he dies, but she can get 50% while he is still alive. What is correct? Thanks!

    • Liz Weston says

      You’ve got it right. Divorced spousal benefits are up to 50% of the ex’s benefit at full retirement age, while divorced survivor benefits are up to 100% of a late ex’s check. You can’t receive survivor benefits on someone’s earnings record if they’re still alive. You also can’t received divorced spousal benefits if you are currently married.

      The different rules for divorced spousal vs. divorced survivor benefits can be complicated, so it’s not surprising that she’s confused. Let’s use the numbers you provided to make this clearer. If she is widowed and her ex is still alive, she would get a divorced survivor benefit of $1,250, since it’s (slightly) larger than the $1,200 survivor benefit from her husband’s record. (Her own $850 benefit would essentially go away, so her household income would drop from $2,050 plus the pension to $1,250.) If her ex should subsequently die, she would be eligible for divorced survivor benefits of $2,500 (or whatever the ex was receiving at the time of his death).

  2. Regarding this article, Divorced survivor benefits increase if earner waits until 67 to apply. In your example, can the person apply at 62 and then switch at 70 to their own benefit if it is higher, or only if you start the survivor benefit at 67?

    • As mentioned, he can apply as early as 60, but the benefit will be reduced for the early start (and be subject to the earnings test). He can switch at any time.