Divorce means saying goodbye to your spouse, but not necessarily to the Social Security benefits you may receive based on his or her earnings.

An ex-spouse may be able to receive Social Security benefits based on the former spouse's work record, according to the Social Security Administration (http://www.ssa.gov/retire2/yourdivspouse.htm).


If the couple were still married, each would generally be eligible to receive Social Security benefits up to 50 percent of the amount the person's spouse would receive at full retirement age. A spouse can claim the benefit even if she never worked outside the home, but there is an important qualifier: The working spouse must either be currently receiving benefits or have "filed and suspended" his benefits.

"Filed and suspended" means if a husband's full retirement age is 67, for example, he can file for benefits when he turns 67, then suspend payment of those benefits until he reaches age 70. If he does that, his stay-at-home wife can file for a spousal benefit up to 50 percent of what he would receive while he continues working for the next several years.

If the couple has divorced, an ex-spouse may be able to claim benefits based on the former spouse's work record. That provision of Social Security law is likely to be more helpful to ex-wives than to ex-husbands, because women earn about 84 percent of the amount men earn, according to the Pew Research Center.

There are rules to qualify for benefits on your ex's work record. Eligibility is limited to ex-spouses who: are currently unmarried; had marriages that lasted 10 years or longer; have been divorced for at least two years; both ex-spouses are age 62 or older; and he is entitled to Social Security benefits.

The good news for ex-spouses fearing they might be out of luck because they didn't settle anything regarding eventual Social Security benefits at the time of divorce: you didn't have to do that. Your former spouse does not even need to know that you have filed for a divorced spouse benefit. Unlike married couples, your ex is not required to have filed or filed and suspended for his own benefits for you to make a claim based on his earnings.

In the case of married couples who both worked outside the home, one may still be eligible to use the spousal benefit provisions. Here is one way it could work. If the husband is already collecting benefits or has filed and suspended his benefits, the wife can start collecting spousal benefits when she reaches full retirement age. She will then delay benefits based on her own work history to age 70, when she will begin receiving a larger monthly check because of the delay.

The Social Security Administration will not allow the wife in the example above to double dip. Once she starts collecting benefits based on her own work history, the spousal benefit ends.

For more information, visit the Social Security Administration's website at http://www.ssa.gov/retire2/yourspouse.htm.

Donna Engle is a retired Westminster attorney. Reach her with questions or feedback at 410-840-2354 or denglelaw@gmail.com. Her column, which provides legal information but not legal advice, appears on the second and fourth Sunday each month in Life & Times.