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Divorce and Social Security Benefits

by Emily Guy Birken

When a marriage dissolves, it can leave one or both spouses scrambling to find their financial footing, particularly when it comes to retirement planning. Retirement can be a particularly difficult prospect for a divorcing spouse who stayed home with children or otherwise sacrificed a career during the marriage.

However, what many divorcées may not realize is that they can still be eligible for their spouse’s higher Social Security benefits even after the marriage has ended. Here is what you need to know about your spousal Social Security rights, whether or not you are still married:

Qualifications for Benefits After Divorce

divorce social security benefitsIn order to qualify for spousal benefits, you need to meet four requirements:

  • Your marriage must have lasted at least 10 years.
  • You must personally not have remarried, although it does not matter if your ex-spouse has. In fact, the spousal benefits you collect will not affect the benefits your ex or his/her new spouse are entitled to.
  • You must have reached age 62 or older.
  • Your benefits based upon your own earnings must be lower than the benefits you would collect based upon your former spouse’s earnings.

If you have remarried, it is possible to collect benefits based on your former spouse’s earning record if your second marriage ends in death, divorce, or annulment.

When You Can Begin Collecting

Suppose you need financial help as of age 62, but you know that your ex-spouse has no plans to retire in the next decade. It is still possible for you to collect retirement benefits based on his earnings, even if he is still working. As long as your ex-spouse would qualify for benefits, you can begin collecting against his earnings as of your 62nd birthday.

There is only one caveat to this rule: you must have been divorced at least two years before you can collect benefits if your ex-spouse has not yet applied for retirement benefits himself.

In addition, it is possible for you to collect spousal benefits while putting off receiving your own retirement benefits, which you never lose the right to. David McPherson of ABC News recommends this strategy as a method to increase your own benefits over time:

“You…can begin by collecting Social Security through a divorced spouse benefit first and delay receiving your own retirement benefits until a later date. This could mean a higher benefit for you down the road by qualifying for delayed retirement credits that accumulate up until age 70.”

Survivor Benefits

One last right to spousal benefits that you retain even through a divorce is your eligibility for survivor benefits if your ex-spouse dies. In the case of survivor benefits, you are eligible to receive them once you have reached age 60 (or 50, if you are disabled). You may also be eligible prior to that if you still have a child living at home.

Social Security and Fairness

Basically, individuals are eligible for the highest benefit to which they are entitled, which includes benefits accrued by a spouse during a long-term marriage. Social Security recognizes that not all of the contributions to a working marriage are financial. This means that spouses who give up working outside the home or working full time for the sake of a marriage that eventually ends will not find themselves up a creek in retirement.


Published or updated January 25, 2013.
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1 Tushar @ Everything Finance

Wow. Those are some very strict rules for divorce and social security! While it’s great that the person that sacrifices his or her career for the marriage (raising children, etc) is entitled to such benefits, it’s too bad they have to jump through such hoops to get them.

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