If you are planning for retirement, and have prior marriages, it’s critically important to fully understand the rules around Social Security divorced spouse benefits.
Divorce is difficult. Though I’ve never personally been through it, I’ve watched as dozens of my clients and friends have gone through the process.
From my side of the desk, I’ve yet to see a single divorce where either spouse emerged with a higher net worth after the split. Everything changes.
The change brought on by divorce requires major adjustments to your financial plans for the future. One of the most important things you’ll need to do is adjust your plans for retirement. Now you may not have the income to continue saving at your prior level, but you probably won’t need as much to fund your lifestyle in retirement. All of this is up to your individual wishes, goals, and dreams. But one thing is for sure…if you are over 50 you need to plan on part of that retirement being funded by Social Security.
So before you sit down with your financial planner to rethink your retirement income strategy, let me explain more about how Social Security benefits for a divorced spouse actually works and why you need to know.
Are There Social Security Benefits for a Divorced Spouse?
Will Your divorce impact your ability to file for Social Security? There’s some good news to start. What divorce may not impact is your ability to file for Social Security on your ex-spouse’s record.
All you need to do is meet the qualifications. The basic rules are that:
- Your marriage must have lasted at least 10 years*
- You must be 62 or older (60 if they are deceased)
That’s pretty much it — but if we stop there, we’re only telling part of the story about how Social Security divorced spouse benefits work. Let’s take a closer look.
*Note: While divorced spouse benefits do require a 10 year length of marriage (where the final divorce became final on or after the 10th anniversary of the marriage), the rules say that if that 10 year period was ‘interrupted’ by divorce, the marriage still qualifies provided the remarriage took place no later than the calendar year immediately following the calendar year of the divorce.
For example, Steve married Rebecca on 6/15/2000 and divorced 5/15/2003. On 9/7/2004, they remarried but divorced again on 8/5/2010. This scenario would satisfy the 10-year requirement even though there weren’t married for the entirety of the 10 year period.
The 10 year marriage rule simply looks to see if the total marriage lasted for 10 years and if it was in existence at some point in each year of the 10 year period.
How Social Security Divorced Spouse Benefits Work, Depending on Your Circumstances
The spousal benefit rules for married individuals require the higher earning spouse to file first before a spousal benefit can be paid to a lower earning spouse.
But that’s not how it works with divorce cases. You can collect on your ex-spouse’s record even if he or she hasn’t applied for benefits!
There are some caveats, though. You must have been divorced for at least two years and your ex-spouse must be eligible for benefits, and typically this means that your ex must be at least 62 years old.
If you’ve met the length of marriage rules, and your ex-spouse is still living, you are eligible for the greater of:
- your own benefit, or
- up to 1/2 of your ex-spouse’s full retirement age benefit.
Here’s an example:
Your ex-spouse has a full retirement age benefit amount of $2,000. Based on that alone, you could expect to receive $1,000 spousal benefit at your full retirement age.
However, the actual amount you receive may be less, based upon the age that you file for benefits.
Depending on how old you are when you file, the spousal benefit amount will range between 32.5% and 50% of the higher-earning spouse’s full retirement benefit.
So, if a spousal benefit is the highest benefit that you are entitled to, there is usually not a good reason to delay filing beyond your personal full retirement age.
And remember: if you are divorced, and your ex-spouse has not yet filed for benefits, you must have been divorced for at least two years before you can claim benefits based on your ex-spouse’s history.
Filing for Benefits When You’ve Had Multiple Marriages, Or Your Ex-Spouse Is Deceased
Social Security rules say that as long as all marriages have ended, you are not currently married, and you’ve met the length of marriage rules, you can choose the highest benefit from any of your ex-spouses.
If circumstances change — perhaps an ex-spouse passes away — then you could switch from a spousal benefit on one spouse to a survivors benefit on another.
If your deceased ex-spouse was the higher income earner, your benefit would be equal to his or her full benefit, minus any reduction for your age. (You can file for a survivor benefit as early as age 60.)
Before you do this, however, be warned: If you remarry prior to age 60, you lose the right to claim on an ex-spouse’s record, at least until the subsequent marriage(s) end in death or divorce.
If you remarry after age 60, you are eligible to receive benefits based on the highest of your benefit, your current spouse’s benefit, or your deceased spouse’s survivor benefit.
If You Want to File for Benefits on Your Ex-Spouse’s Record, Use This Special Strategy to Yield Higher Benefits
Don’t grab your keys and head off to your local Social Security office just yet. Just because you can file on your ex-spouse’s benefit doesn’t mean that you should.
At the very least, you need to know your options about some filing strategies that could drastically increase the amount of cash flow and lifetime benefits you could receive.
If your ex-spouse is deceased, you have met the length of marriage rules, and don’t exceed the income limitation, you could file a restricted application for a survivor benefit as early as age 60 and switch back to your own benefit at full retirement age or later.
Here’s an example to illustrate how this works:
Let’s say that Karen has her own Social Security benefit available of $2,000 at her full retirement age of 67. Currently she’s 62, and is also eligible for a survivors benefit of $1,300 today.
She could file for only the survivors benefit and let her benefit increase with delayed retirement credits. At age 70, she could switch back to her own benefit which would have grown to $2,480 (not including cost of living adjustments!).
This strategy is only available for those eligible for a survivors benefit — but if you qualify, it can help you reap big rewards in attaining more retirement cash flow.
Don’t Expect the Social Security Administration to Tell You This
The rules for Social Security benefits for former spouses are pretty generous, and the program can provide much-needed income during retirement years. Making sure that you understand the rules is key to receiving the maximum benefit to which you are entitled.
The amount of benefits you, or your survivor, will receive can often hinge on how much you know! But don’t expect the Social Security Administration to look at all of your prior marriages and make a determination about which eligible benefit is best for you.
They make it pretty clear…proving that there are eligible benefits from prior marriages is the responsibility of the claimant.
Unless you know the rules, it’s pretty easy (and common!) to miss benefits from a prior marriage.
Adding to the challenge is that once you are divorced, the Social Security Administration stops sharing information about your ex-spouse’s benefit amount with you.
That’s great for privacy but bad for obtaining information and planning. However, if you ask them specific questions, they will answer.
See their publication on Social Security and Divorce here.
At least now you know that you need to dig into the rules and figure out your options before you make a filing mistake — but you could still be concerned that you might miss out on benefits.
In that case, if you still have questions you could leave a comment below… but what may be an even greater help is to join my FREE Facebook members group.
It’s very active and has some really smart people who love to answer any questions you may have about Social Security. From time to time I’ll even drop in to add my thoughts, too.
You should also consider joining the 330,000+ subscribers on my YouTube channel! For visual learners (as most of us are), this is where I break down the complex rules and help you figure out how to use them to your advantage.
One last thing that you don’t want to miss: Be sure to get your FREE copy of my Social Security Cheat Sheet. This handy guide takes all of the most important rules from the massive Social Security website and condenses it all down to just one page.