For millions of Americans, Social Security forms the foundation of their retirement. For many, the benefit from Social Security comprises more than half their retirement income.

From its creation during the administration of President Franklin Roosevelt, Social Security has given spouses and ex-spouses a claiming right to retirement benefits. For those who are among the tens of millions who are divorced as they near retirement, it’s critical to understand the nuances of the Social Security system, and how they can maximize their benefit.

Depending on their circumstances, divorced Social Security beneficiaries can receive either:

  • “retired worker” benefits, which are based on the individual’s own covered earnings history;
  • “auxiliary” benefits, which are determined by a living or deceased former spouse’s covered earnings history; or
  • a combination of both.

So, a divorced retiree’s Social Security retirement benefit depends not only on their own earnings history, but also to a large extent on their marital history and the earnings histories of previous spouses. Furthermore, a divorced person with multiple marriages could receive an auxiliary benefit from any of their former spouses.

Although a person might describe themselves as divorced, at retirement they may receive a divorced spouse benefit, a surviving divorced spouse benefit, or a widow(er) benefit from Social Security.

The following flowchart can help you navigate the complexities of claiming Social Security as (an advisor to) a divorced retiree.

Before claiming Social Security, you should consider consulting a qualified tax advisor or financial planner.

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