QUESTION: I heard that I may be entitled to collect Social Security benefits when I retire based on my ex-husband’s earnings. But I looked at my divorce decree and it doesn’t say anything about it. Did I miss the boat?
Here’s some good news about your divorce. If you were married to your ex-spouse for ten years before your divorce became final, you are entitled to Social Security benefits based on his earnings by operation of federal law.
That means it doesn’t have to be addressed in your divorce papers to be effective. Those benefits are called “derivative benefits,” and they equal one-half of your ex-husband’s benefits. You may apply to the Social Security Administration for derivative benefits on your ex’s earnings record if you:
Both you and your ex-spouse are at least 62 years old
Would receive less Social Security without the derivative benefits on your own
Don’t worry if your ex threatens to keep working in order to thwart your ability to claim benefits against his record. These are empty threats. It isn’t necessary for him to retire for you to begin collecting.
How Derivative Benefits Work
Here’s another piece of good news. Unlike other pensions, the derivative Social Security benefits you receive will be based on your ex-spouse’s entire earnings record, not just his earnings during the time you were married.
The Social Security benefits you receive won’t reduce the amount he receives. If he’s remarried, it won’t reduce what his current wife is entitled to receive. And if he has a new family, it won’t reduce the amount his young children receive either.
You can only receive one Social Security check, so if your own earnings record entitles you to more money than the derivative benefits, you’ll collect benefits based on the highest amount to which you are entitled.
If you have more than one ex-spouse, and you were married to each of them for ten years or longer, you’ll collect whichever earnings record gives you the higher benefits.
Be aware that if you are a government employee, your Social Security benefits will be reduced by a portion of any government pension that you are receiving based on your own earnings. However, if you receive a government pension because an ex-spouse worked for the government, it won’t affect your ability to collect Social Security.