Does an Ex-Spouse Qualify for Survivor Benefits?

Key Points

  • There are three basic age and marriage qualifications for divorced spouse survivors' benefits.

  • Beyond the basics, there are strategies to consider to maximize your benefits.

  • If you have more than one deceased ex-spouse, you have even more choices.

Dear Carrie,

I have a question regarding my Social Security benefits from my deceased ex-spouse. We were married about 16 years, we divorced and I remarried. I am now divorced from my second spouse. Am I now able to receive survivor benefits from my first (deceased) ex-spouse? 

A Reader

Dear Reader,

Social Security benefits can be confusing enough, and when you get into the rules and regulations concerning ex-spouses they're potentially even more so. But the good news is that as an ex-spouse you definitely can file for survivor benefits—as long as you meet certain qualifications based on age, length of marriage and current marital status. And benefits paid to an ex-spouse don't in any way affect benefits paid to a widow or widower.

However, as with anything to do with Social Security, there's more to consider. So let's start by going over the basics; then we can explore some scenarios that may help you maximize your benefits.

Three basic qualifications

To qualify for survivor benefits, an ex-spouse must:

  • Be at least 60 years old (50 if disabled; no age rule if caring for an ex's child under age 16)
  • Have been married to the deceased ex-spouse for a minimum of 10 years
  • Not have remarried before age 60—or if he or she did remarry before age 60, that marriage must have ended

If you meet all three qualifications, you're entitled to the same survivors' benefits as a widow or widower—up to 100 percent of the deceased spouse's monthly Social Security benefit. That's the straightforward part. The more confusing considerations come into play as you look at how your age and current work status may affect those benefits.

That's because, just as with regular Social Security retirement benefits, survivors' benefits are reduced if you begin collecting before your full retirement age (FRA). For instance, begin collecting at age 60 and you'll receive just over 71% of the full amount. And if you make over a certain yearly income—$15,720 in 2015—some of your survivor benefits will be temporarily withheld.

Three possible scenarios

The simplest situation is if you're already collecting Social Security. In that case, you have a clear choice: if your own benefit is higher than the survivor benefit, stick with your own; if the survivor benefit is higher, make the switch and increase your monthly income. The key point is that you have to choose. You can't collect both.

However, if you haven't yet filed for benefits on your own work record, you have the opportunity to do some strategizing to potentially maximize overall benefits. Here are a couple of other scenarios to consider:

  • If your own retirement benefit is estimated to be higher than the survivor benefit, you could choose to collect the lower survivor benefit starting as early as age 60, and let your own benefit grow. You can then switch to your own benefit at any time between 62 and 70. The longer you wait, the larger your own benefit will be.
  • On the other hand, if your own benefit is lower, you have the option to start taking reduced benefits based on your own work record as early as age 62, then at FRA you could switch to the higher survivor benefit. While taking your own benefits early results in a permanent reduction of any benefits based on your own record, that reduction doesn't apply to the survivor benefit once you make the switch.

The opportunity to switch between spouses

There's yet another possibility should both (or any number of) spouses pass away. Let me give you an example. A friend's father and mother, I'll call them Frank and Marie, divorced after many years. Marie remarried and her second husband passed away after a couple of years. At her FRA, Marie began collecting survivor benefits from her second husband. Ten years later, Frank died. The survivor benefit from Frank was much higher, so Marie switched over, significantly increasing her monthly income.

What's best for you

As you can see, once you get beyond the basics, there's more to think about. Since it appears that you qualify for survivor benefits, I'd recommend that you talk to a financial advisor familiar with Social Security who can help you take a look at these scenarios in light of your overall financial situation. At the very least, speak with someone at the Social Security Administration by calling 800-772-1213 or contact your local SSA office. If you need the added income now, by all means take it, but carefully weighing your options before you file could ultimately mean more money in your pocket. 

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