Dear Penny: Do I Get My Ex’s Social Security if He Worked Under the Table?

A woman and man exchange money underneath the table.
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Dear Penny,

My ex-husband obviously only had jobs that paid him in cash or under the table since our divorce 23 years ago. I found this out after calling the Social Security office to apply for his retirement checks. He isn't receiving any because the small amount he had in his account whittled down to nothing. Does that mean I have no recourse?


Dear L.,

You can only collect Social Security on a current or former spouse’s work record if they’re eligible for benefits. They need to be at least 62 and have a minimum of 40 work credits. That amounts to 10 years of working and paying the payroll taxes that fund Social Security and Medicare.

If your ex-husband isn’t eligible for Social Security and he’s 62 or older, it’s because he hasn’t earned 40 work credits, not because he’s depleted an account. Social Security doesn’t have separate accounts set aside for each of us. Benefits are paid out from Social Security’s trust fund based on how much you paid into the system.

Dear Penny

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I’m wondering if working under the table seems in keeping with the person you knew 23 years ago. This is a long shot, but if your ex-husband usually worked a regular job, perhaps it’s worth another call to Social Security to verify that they have the correct identifying information. Keep in mind, though, that all this is moot if you were married for less than 10 years, as you wouldn’t be eligible for your ex’s benefit even if it exists.

If your ex doesn’t qualify for retirement benefits, unfortunately, you won’t qualify for ex-spousal benefits. But maybe that’s not the dire news you think it is.

I’m guessing you’ve survived these past 23 years without support from your ex-husband. If you’ve earned at least 40 work credits on your own, you’ll probably get more money by taking your own retirement benefit.

Benefits for spouses and ex-spouses aren’t quite the boon many people expect. The average monthly spousal benefit as of June 2022 was $835 vs. $1,623 for the average retirement benefit. You don’t get a spousal benefit on top of your own benefit. Social Security simply gives you whichever benefit is bigger, but not both benefits.

The reason spousal benefits are so much lower is that the maximum benefit you can collect is 50% of your spouse’s or ex-spouse’s full retirement benefit. If you apply before your full retirement age, which is 66 or 67, depending on when you were born, you’ll get even less. For example, if you start Social Security at 62, the earliest age you can collect retirement benefits, you’d receive just 32.5% of your ex’s benefit.

You also can’t score bigger monthly checks by delaying. When you take your own benefit, you get an extra 8% per year for waiting to take Social Security until you reach your maximum benefit at 70. But spousal benefits cap out at your full retirement age of 66 or 67.

If you’ve worked some, but not enough to earn your own Social Security benefit, consider whether you could get a job to reach those 40 credits. You can earn up to four credits per year. In 2022, you’d need to earn just $6,040 to earn the four-credit maximum, so even working a few hours a week at a part-time job could help you qualify. Delaying Social Security for as long as possible to collect a bigger benefit would also be smart in this situation.

In the worst-case scenario that you haven’t worked enough to get Social Security, you’d still be able to receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI) once you’re 65. Unlike Social Security benefits, SSI isn’t based on your work record. The maximum monthly benefit for an individual in 2022 is $841 — slightly more than the average spousal benefit.

Spousal benefits usually make sense when one spouse was the main breadwinner over a long marriage. But you’ve been living without your ex for 23 years. You have options for collecting benefits, but they won’t come from your ex-husband’s work record.

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Robin Hartill is a certified financial planner and a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. Send your tricky money questions to [email protected].