Katja Rivera, 64, is a massage therapist and theater director in Berkeley, California, who said she's never earned more than about $30,000 a year. When her two daughters were small, she sometimes earned much less.
But Rivera was married for 10 years to a man who has consistently earned much more than she has. When Rivera retires in a few years, she expects to receive a Social Security check based on her ex's greater earnings.
Many divorced people don't realize they can get Social Security benefits derived from their ex-spouse's work history, said William Meyer, founder of Social Security Solutions, a website that helps people determine when and how to claim Social Security. Those who are aware of the benefits often misunderstand crucial details and can make decisions that cost them tens of thousands of dollars over their lifetimes, he said.
Here are the basics: You may qualify for benefits based on your ex's work record if your marriage lasted at least 10 years. Any benefit you receive won't affect the amounts your ex, your ex's current spouse or any of your ex's other ex-spouses will receive.
However, the rules for these benefits depend on whether your ex is alive or dead.
If your ex is still alive and you haven't remarried, you may qualify for divorced spousal benefits. This benefit could be up to 50% of what the ex would get at full retirement age, which is currently between age 66 and 67.
You would get a divorced spousal benefit only if it's greater than the amount you've earned on your own work record when you apply. Social Security pays the higher of the two amounts — not both. Divorced spousal benefits end if you remarry.
To apply, you must be at least 62. Your ex must be at least 62 as well, or receiving Social Security disability benefits. If your ex is entitled to retirement benefits but hasn't started them, at least two years must have passed since the divorce for you to qualify for a divorced spousal benefit.
However, applying for Social Security too early has some significant costs. Your benefits are permanently reduced if you apply before your own full retirement age. Your payment also would be subject to the earnings test, which withholds $1 for each $2 you earn over a certain amount: For 2023, that number is $21,240.
Making the right choice is important because you can't switch from a divorced spousal benefit to your own benefit later — even if your own is eventually larger. (Your own retirement benefit can grow over time if you continue to work. In addition, you can earn "delayed retirement credits" that increase your retirement benefit by 8% for each year you put off applying, between your full retirement age and 70, when benefits max out.)
If Rivera's ex dies before she does, she could be eligible for a different payment: divorced survivor benefits.
This benefit is more generous in many ways. The divorced survivor benefit can be up to 100% of what your ex was receiving. You can apply for this benefit as early as age 60, or age 50 if you're disabled. As with divorced spousal benefits, the amount will be reduced and subject to the earnings test if you start before your own full retirement age.
But you can be married and still get divorced survivor benefits based on an ex's work record, as long as you remarried at 60 or older. Plus, you can switch from a divorced survivor's benefit to your own benefit later. For example, you could start with a divorced survivor benefit as early as age 60 and then change to your own retirement benefit at 70, if it's larger.
Rivera is confident that half of her ex's benefit amount will be more than her own, even if she waits to apply until her own retirement benefit maxes out at 70. To know for sure, though, she'd need to ask her ex to share his Social Security statement — something she's not comfortable doing.
You can easily check your own earnings record and projected benefit amounts by setting up a "my Social Security" account at www.ssa.gov. These figures can help you calculate how to maximize your benefit, using free claiming calculators like the one at AARP or more sophisticated paid calculators, such as Social Security Solutions (starting at $20) or Maximize My Social Security (starting at $39).
But you can't get similar access to an ex's record, Meyer notes. Without asking your ex to share their statement, you may not know how much your divorced benefits are worth until you actually apply. That can make it tough to plan ahead and maximize your lifetime Social Security income, Meyer said.
"Even though you may not want to call your ex, this may be the one time it's worth making a phone call," he said.