Divorce And Social Security Benefits - What You Need to Know

If you were married for over 10 years before getting divorced, it's important to understand the rules regarding divorce and social security benefits.

By Womans Divorce Staff | Answers by Timothy McNamara, Financial Expert

Many divorced women don’t realize that they might be able to claim Social Security benefits based on their ex-spouse's earnings. Whether you're currently navigating a divorce or have already divorced, here is what you need to know about divorced spouse benefits and the eligibility criteria.

Divorced Spouse Benefits

If you were married to your ex for at least 10 years before you divorced, you may eligible for Social Security benefits based on your ex’s earnings record. To qualify for these benefits, you must be at least 62 years old and single.

If you have remarried, you can't collect benefits on your ex’s record unless your current marriage ends due to death, divorce, or annulment. In that situation, it's important to note that you won’t get benefits from each husband, just benefits on the husband with the highest benefit rate.

Determining how much you can receive

The maximum benefit a divorced spouse can get is 50% of their ex-spouse's benefit at their full retirement age. But you’ll only get the divorced spousal benefit if it exceeds your own social security benefit. For example, if your social security benefit is less than half of what your ex’s benefit would be, you’ll receive divorced spousal benefits. 

Another important thing to keep in mind is that both you and your ex need to be at least 62 years old for you to get receive divorced spouse benefits. Also, if you end up getting remarried, your divorced spouse benefits will end.

Survivor benefits for divorced individuals

If your ex-spouse dies before you reach retirement age, you could be eligible for divorced widow benefits as early as age 60 (or age 50 if you’re disabled). This means you could get approximately 71% of your ex’s benefit rate until you reach retirement age and start receiving benefits based on your own earnings. At full retirement age (between 66 and 67, depending on when you were born), you’ll be able to receive 100 percent of your ex’s Social Security benefit if it is more than what you would be receiving based on your own earnings.

Additionally, if you are caring for your ex’s children who are under the age of 16, you may apply at any time for survivor benefits without having to meet the 10-year marriage requirement. If you are 60 or older, you can continue to receive survivor benefits even if you remarry. It's a good idea to consult with the Social Security Administration to understand the exact rules and eligibility criteria for survivor benefits in your situation.

Applying for divorced spousal benefits

Something that many women worry about is if their ex can prevent them from receiving divorced spouse benefits. But rest assured, your ex can’t stop you from applying for or receiving benefits. And it won’t reduce the amount of benefits your ex receives when he applies for his own benefits, or those of his current spouse if he's remarried.

To apply for divorce spousal benefits before your ex starts receiving his benefits, you need to have been divorced for at least 2 continuous years. To find out what you are eligible for and to begin the application process, you can visit your local Social Security office or apply for benefits online. You’ll need to supply copies of your birth certificate, marriage license and divorce decree, as well as tax records. You'll also need to supply your ex's social security number.

Divorce and Social Security FAQs

Will I be eligible to receive 50% of his Social Security benefits?

Martha's Question: My husband and I divorced after being married for 26 years. I am 52 and he is 59. When I reach 62, will I be eligible to collect 50% of his social security? His income was substantially higher than mine.

Timothy's Answer: Your question about future social security benefits is a question that comes up regularly. The short answer to your question is “yes”. Essentially, you will be entitled to collect retirement benefits based on his social security schedule if you were married to your husband for at least 10 years before getting divorced.

To qualify, your ex-husband must be eligible to receive benefits or is currently receiving them, and you must be at least 62 years old. If you worked in the past, the amount you are eligible for is 50% of your husband's benefits or the benefits which are based on your earnings, whichever is greater. In your situation, your spouse was the higher wage earner, so you will likely receive 50% of his benefits.

The exception to this rule is if you remarry. But if your second marriage were to later end due to death or divorce, you would be eligible once again. The Social Security Administration is a great resource for questions related to divorce and social security benefits. You can reach them on-line by visiting their website at www.ssa.gov or by telephone at 1-800-772-1213.

Should I wait until he starts receiving benefits before I file for divorce?

Linda's Question: My husband will soon reach full retirement eligibility for Social Security in October. Since we have a dependent child, he will also get benefits. Do I file for divorce before this comes into effect, or do I wait until after it has commenced and use it as child support?

Timothy's Answer: Since both you and your husband will be eligible to receive your full retirement benefits in October, you will qualify for what is referred to as "derivative" benefits from your spouse. If by waiting until October allows you to meet the marriage provision term of at least 10 years and you are the lower paid spouse, then it is certainly worth waiting until this time.

However, if you already have met the 10 year marriage requirement, then waiting until October should not have a significant impact on the benefits you are eligible to receive. As long as you have been married ten years, you are already eligible to receive one half his benefit amounts, assuming you have both met the age requirement of 62 and he will be entitled to receiving his full benefits then. Please be aware, if you remarry, you will not be eligible to receive benefits on your former spouse's unless your marriage formally ends.

Child support is affected by social security benefits and typically is included in determining the parent's income. Hence, any benefit the parent paying child support receives will help determine the initial child support obligation. You should check with your state's child support guidelines to determine the way in which they view child support as it pertains to gross income.

Am I entitled to survivor benefits if our divorce wasn't finalized?

Jan's Question: I was married over 40 years ago and thought I was divorced two years after we married, but I recently found out the divorce was never finalized. He passed away a few years ago. Would I be eligible to draw on his benefits as a widow since I'm not married and over 60?

Brette's Answer: If the divorce was never finalized, you may be eligible. It really depends on what happened and what prevented finalization. 

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