Ask The Seniors Center: am I eligible to file for ex-spouse survivor benefit early?

I was married for 11 years to a marine. We got divorced. He was also a retired military. Then he got a civilian job after that. Then he passed away at the age of 54.

His age by now if he didn’t die should be 64 years old. My question is, I am now 61 years old. And no job. Am I eligible to file a survivor benefit under his social security as an early retirement benefit?

Also, am I eligible to file a survivor benefit under his military benefits too?



Hi, Lynn,

Thanks for your question!

Provided your ex-spouse would have been eligible for Social Security benefits himself, the general answer to your first question is yes.  You may be eligible to file for survivor benefits under his work record.

However, in order to be eligible for survivor benefits under his earnings record, you must meet the following criteria:

  • Have been married to your ex-spouse 10 years or more
  • Are unmarried (unless you were remarried after age 60)
  • Your own Social Security benefit would be less than the survivor’s benefit you’d receive through your ex-spouse (your survivor benefit would be half of your ex-spouse’s full benefit)

You can claim this benefit any time between age 60 and your full retirement age, but just as with your own benefit, claiming before you’ve reached full retirement age will result in a reduced benefit.

Keep in mind, this is a very general breakdown of the requirements for claiming a survivor benefit as an ex-spouse.  There are additional caveats and rules that may come into play for your unique situation—especially if you’re considering flipping to your own earnings record at full retirement age– so it’s worth taking a look at the Social Security Administration’s site and contacting a specialist to learn more.

Military Survivor Benefit Plans (SBP) work a little bit differently than Social Security.  One big difference is under Social Security, an unlimited amount of survivors are able to file for benefits under a worker’s record. Whether a current spouse, children, or surviving family members are receiving survivor benefits, it doesn’t affect whether or not you can file as an ex-spouse.

SBP plans don’t work that way.  Under SBP, only one beneficiary can be named, and it is very difficult to change your beneficiary once you have selected one.  It’s generally considered an irrevocable decision.

It used to be true that former spouses weren’t eligible for SBP at all, but since 1984, Congress does allow for ex-spouses to receive SBP in specific cases by order of a court or as specified in a divorce agreement. An ex-spouse is never automatically granted SBP.

Even if you might be the beneficiary on his SBP, but you still wouldn’t simply be eligible for a benefit as a former spouse.

You would have to have been granted the benefit in the divorce or granted the benefit in court. Within one year of the divorce, he also would have had to change your status on the SBP from spouse to former spouse.

Being granted SBP as an ex-spouse is pretty tricky business and requires a lot of work to achieve.  We’d also recommend you speak to a specialist about your unique situation regarding military benefits.

Sorry we couldn’t be more helpful.  Determining retirement benefit eligibility ultimately comes down to a lot of details that are going to be unique to you.  Contact your local Social Security Administration office or an advisor specializing in retirement and benefit plans for a more concrete answer to your questions.

Thanks again for your question, Lynn, and good luck to you!


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