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Living in retirement

You may be able to claim on your ex's earnings record

If you meet a few conditions, you may be entitled to Social Security benefits as a divorced spouse.
11 minute read

Points to know

  • If your ex-spouse qualifies for Social Security retirement benefits, you were married for at least 10 years, and you're not remarried, you may be eligible to claim on your ex's earnings record.
  • If you're going to collect on your ex's record, you'll be eligible for half of your spouse's full benefits if you start collecting at your full retirement age.

Start with your benefits estimates

Your first step in maximizing your Social Security benefits should be to visit the Social Security Administration (SSA) website. If you know your ex's Social Security number, you can check for his or her benefits as well. Or you can ask your ex about his or her benefits if the two of you are on good terms.

If you're not, the SSA can give you information about your ex's benefits. You'll need both your and your ex-spouse's benefits estimates to determine your best Social Security claiming strategy.

When you file for Social Security, you file for all the benefits for which you're eligible, including divorced spousal benefits. So even if you don't know your former spouse's Social Security number, you can still file for and receive divorced spousal benefits.

Good to know

Don't know—and can't ask for—your ex's Social Security number? Don't worry. When you apply for Social Security, you can get an estimate of what you might receive by providing your former spouse's name, date and place of birth, and parents' names.

GET YOUR SOCIAL SECURITY ESTIMATES

The Social Security Administration (SSA) website provides estimates for how much you'll collect if you start receiving benefits at age 62, your full retirement age (FRA) (between 66 and 67), and age 70. 

Factors that could reduce your payments

Before you plug your Social Security estimates into your retirement plan, be sure to adjust those estimates if any of these factors apply to see how much you might actually end up with.

Working while you collect Social Security may temporarily reduce your benefits

You may pay federal & state taxes on your payments

Your Medicare premiums may be deducted from your payments

A government pension could decrease your benefits

Whose earnings record should you collect on?

If your ex qualifies for Social Security benefits, you were married for at least 10 years, and you're not remarried, you have options.

You can claim Social Security on your own earnings record or on your ex's record. If your ex qualifies for Social Security but isn't already collecting, you can still collect on his or her record if you've been divorced for at least 2 years.

You're entitled to half of your ex's benefits if you start collecting once you reach your full retirement age (FRA). But you won't receive increased benefits by waiting past your FRA.

If the benefits you'd receive by collecting on your own earnings record are more than what you'd collect on you ex's record, consider collecting on your own record.

Learn what benefits you may be eligible for if you remarried after your divorce

Learn what benefits you may be eligible for if your ex died after your divorce

Quick facts about claiming on your ex's earnings record:

  • You can claim even if your ex has remarried.
  • You can claim even if your ex hasn't retired and isn't receiving Social Security benefits (as long as your ex is at least 62).
  • Claiming won't reduce your ex's Social Security benefits or his or her current spouse's benefits.
  • The SSA won't notify your ex that you've claimed on his or her record.

Keep in mind

If you collect Social Security before you reach your FRA, your benefits will be permanently reduced whether you're collecting on your own earnings record or your ex's record.

Figure out the best time to claim Social Security

As you consider the right time to start collecting Social Security, remember that if you decide to delay, you can revisit that decision as often as you'd like.

Anyone who's paid Social Security taxes for at least 10 years can start to receive retirement benefits as early as age 62 based on his or her earnings record.

Collecting Social Security at 62 has some advantages. For example, you may be ready to retire and counting on Social Security as the cornerstone of your retirement plan. After all, if you've paid 10 years of Social Security taxes, then you're entitled to Social Security benefits.

If you have serious health problems or a family history that suggests you may not live long enough to profit from waiting, collecting early might make the most sense for you.

On the other hand, the earlier you start to collect, the less you'll receive each month. But if you start to collect and then change your mind, you have 2 options.

The "reset" rule

Within 12 months of starting to collect, you can "reset" your benefits to erase the reduction, but you must repay all of the benefits you and your family earned.

See how it works: The "reset" rule

The voluntary suspension rule

If you started collecting before your full retirement age (FRA), you can suspend your benefits at FRA and restart them later.

See how it works: Voluntary suspension

If you start collecting Social Security retirement benefits at your full retirement age (FRA), you'll receive 100% of your primary insurance amount (PIA). But remember that you can collect more than 100% of your PIA by waiting beyond your FRA.

You'll earn an extra 0.67% each month that you delay your Social Security benefits past your FRA. That's an extra 8% for each year that you wait past FRA … and what other investment can guarantee an 8% annual increase?*

If you can wait until you're 70, you'll receive your highest Social Security payments—up to 132% of your primary insurance amount (PIA) if your full retirement age (FRA) is 66, or 124% of your PIA if your FRA is 67.

Of course, you don't have to file when you reach one of the milestones listed above—62, full retirement age (FRA), or 70. You can apply for survivors benefits as early as age 60 and for your own Social Security retirement benefits anytime between the ages of 62 and 70.

An advanced claiming strategy (if you were born before January 2, 1954)

If you were born before January 2, 1954, you have an additional option. You can claim on one earnings record at full retirement age (FRA) and then switch to the other later. In some cases, taking the lower benefits at FRA can pay off down the road.

See how it works: Born before January 2, 1954

What's next?

Social Security provides more than just retirement benefits. And the federal government offers more than just Social Security benefits. As you put your retirement plan together, check to see whether you qualify for other government benefits, such as family and children services, tax assistance, and active military or veterans benefits.

Apply for Social Security

You can file for Social Security benefits online, over the phone, or in person at a local Social Security Administration office.

You may need to produce these documents when you apply

  • Your Social Security card.
  • An original birth certificate or other proof of your birth.
  • A copy of your W-2 form or self-employment tax return for the previous year.
  • Your marriage certificate and divorce decree.
  • If you weren't born in the United States, proof of U.S. citizenship or lawful alien status.

A Vanguard advisor can help

If you're struggling with making your best Social Security decision, we can help. You'll also get a custom financial plan, ongoing portfolio management, investment coaching, and real-time goal tracking—all at a low cost.

Reach your goals with advice from Vanguard

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More help

Build your Social Security strategy

Read our Social Security brochure

Download Introduction to Social Security 

Partner with a Vanguard advisor or call 800-962-5028 to speak with an investment professional.

Partner with a Vanguard advisor or call 800-962-5028 to speak with an investment professional.

*The amount of your monthly benefits also increases for each month you wait between age 62 and your full retirement age (FRA), but the rate is lower than 8% per year and varies depending on your age.

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