Q&A: Social Security Benefits and Divorce

Dear Liz: I am 53 and divorced. My ex-husband died at the age of 49 and had contributed significantly to Social Security. I don’t plan to remarry. Would I be able to make any claim on his record as an ex-spouse when I reach age 62, or would he have had to reach retirement age for this to be possible?

Answer: If your marriage lasted at least 10 years, you could get the same benefits as a widow or widower. We’ll assume your ex was “fully insured” under Social Security, which means he paid enough into the system to qualify for benefits.

For the sake of brevity, we’ll also assume that you’re not disabled or caring for his minor or disabled child. (You could still qualify for benefits if any of these were true, but the rules would be somewhat different.)

Your survivors’ checks would be based on what he would have received had he survived until retirement (a sum known as his primary insurance amount). If he had been 62 or older when he died and had started receiving Social Security checks, your benefit would have been based on what he was actually receiving.

You can start survivors’ benefits as early as age 60 if you’re not disabled. If you start benefits before your own full retirement age, however, your benefits will be reduced because of the early start. Another thing to keep in mind is that if you don’t apply until age 62 or later and your own retirement benefits are larger than your widows’ benefit, you’ll get your own benefit instead.

On the other hand, you’re allowed to switch from his benefit to your own at any point between age 62 and age 70. It’s possible that your own benefit, left untouched to grow, eventually could exceed your survivors’ benefit. Obviously, this decision will involve crunching some numbers to see which approach makes the most sense. The Social Security Administration suggests you contact your local office or call (800) 772-1213 to learn how much you could receive on your ex’s work record, since that’s not information you can access online.

One other thing you should know: Since you’d be getting survivors’ rather than spousal benefits, you could remarry after you reach age 60 without endangering your checks. Those whose exes are still alive have to refrain from remarrying if they want their spousal benefits to continue.


  1. One important fact that your forgetting to say is that you can’t make over $15,000 (approximately) to collect benefits. I’m. 63 year old widow and I tried, was told I can’t collect till 66, since I make over $15,000,

    • Liz Weston says

      Hi, Tina. You were misinformed. What you’re probably referring to is the earning test. If you start benefits early and earn more than a certain limit (which this year is close to $15,000), your Social Security check is reduced by $1 for every $2 earned over that limit. The earnings test disappears when you reach your full retirement age.

  2. Wait a minute. I thought you couldn’t switch if you started benefits before your own full retirement age!

    • Liz Weston says

      That’s if you start early with spousal benefits, Tena. Survivors benefits are different.

  3. Christen says

    This is what I see in many places regarding that rule of re-marriage:
    “Generally, we cannot pay benefits if the divorced spouse remarries someone other than the former spouse, unless the latter marriage ends (whether by death, divorce, or annulment), or the marriage is to a person entitled to certain types of Social Security auxiliary or survivor’s benefits”. What does the “or marriage is to a person entitled to certain types of Social Security auxiliary or survivor’s benefits” mean?

    • Liz Weston says

      I do not know. I do know that people get confused about the difference between survivors benefits (which can continue if remarriage happens after 60) and spousal/divorced spousal benefits (which typically end with remarriage).

  4. Rosemary says

    Rosemary- Do not plan to remarry, been divorced since 1985, will be 66 in aug can I receive a portion of my ex’s ss benefits. Thanks

    • Liz Weston says

      If the marriage lasted at least 10 years, you should be entitled to a spousal benefit equal to half of what he gets or has earned (if he hasn’t started taking benefits–divorced spouses don’t have to wait for the other party to file, as married spouses do). Ask Social Security to compare the benefits to see which is larger.

  5. Rosemary says

    2nd comment I forgot to mention I work full time and receive a check of $470.00 every two weeks and started receiving my ss benefits this year. again divorced in 1985 and will be 66 in aug. thanks