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Divorce and Social Security Benefits

Almost half of all marriages end in divorce.  This article discusses the rules on divorce and social security with the goal of helping you maximize your benefits.  Before filing for social security, you should get the facts on your marriage(s) durations and divorce dates.  You must have been married for at least 10 years to receive social security or survivor benefits on your ex-spouse's earnings.  If you remarried and are still married, then you can't claim benefits from your ex-spouse's work record.

If you are divorced, but your marriage lasted 10 years or longer, you can receive benefits on your ex-spouse's record (even if he or she has remarried) if:

  • You are unmarried;
  • You are age 62 or older;
  • Your ex-spouse is entitled to Social Security retirement or disability benefits; and
  • The benefit you are entitled to receive based on your own work is less than the benefit you would receive based on your ex-spouse's work.

Your benefit as a divorced spouse is equal to one-half of your ex-spouse's full retirement amount (or disability benefit), if you start receiving benefits at your full retirement age.  If you remarry, you generally cannot collect benefits on your former spouse's record unless your later marriage ends (whether by death, divorce or annulment).

If your ex-spouse has not applied for retirement benefits, but can qualify for them, you can receive benefits on his or her record, if you have been divorced for at least two years. If you are eligible for retirement benefits on your own record, the government will pay that amount first.  The amount of your benefit, however, will vary depending on the following:

  • The benefit on his or her record is a higher amount, you will get a combination of benefits that equals that higher amount (reduced for age). The benefits do not include any delayed retirement credits your ex-spouse may receive.
  • You have reached full retirement age and you are eligible for a spouse's benefit and your own retirement benefit, you have a choice. You can choose to receive only the divorced spouse's benefits now and delay receiving your retirement benefits until a later date. If your retirement benefits are delayed, a higher benefit may be received at a later date based on the effect of Delayed Retirement Credits.

Additional adjustment to your benefits may be caused by the following:

  • If you continue to work while receiving benefits, the retirement benefit earnings limit still applies. If you are eligible for benefits this year and are still working, you can use one of the earnings test calculators to see how those earnings would affect your benefit payments.
  • If you will also receive a pension based on work not covered by Social Security, such as government or foreign work, your Social Security benefit on your ex-spouse's record may be affected.  

The amount of benefits you get has no effect on the amount of benefits your ex-spouse or their current spouse may receive. If your former spouse is deceased and you will need information about possible survivors benefits, please read our upcoming article on this subject.  If you are divorced and retirement age, you should consider consulting a divorce attorney, tax attorney, cpa and/or a combination thereof.

Gene M. Bowman, Attorney & CPA