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Social Security and Divorce: What Everyone Should Know

Alexa Kane, CFP®, CDFA™
April 23, 2020

Social Security is a major income source for many Americans, but the system can be complicated to navigate. It’s important to understand how those benefits work – especially if you are divorced – and to know your rights. The benefits you’re able to collect following a divorce may impact your individual retirement plan.


This post will discuss how an ex-spouse can qualify for Social Security retirement benefits on the earnings of their former spouse and highlight some divorce-related Social Security issues.

Eligibility

If a couple has been married for 10 years (date of marriage to date divorce is finalized) or longer and they get a divorce, the lower earning spouse (Spouse A) is entitled to half of the ex-spouse’s (Spouse B) Social Security retirement benefit if:

  1. Spouse B is eligible to receive Social Security benefits.
  2. Spouse A is not married. If Spouse A is married, they can get benefits based on their own earnings or on the new spouses’ earnings
  3. Spouse A is over age 62
  4. Spouse A is not eligible for Social Security retirement benefits based on their own earnings, which equal or exceed one half of Spouse B’s benefits.

Note: Spouse B’s Social Security retirement benefits are not reduced by the amount that Spouse A receives at retirement.


If Spouse A is over age 62 and has been divorced for at least two years, they will be able to receive benefits based on the earnings of Spouse B, regardless of whether Spouse B has retired or applied for benefits.


When Social Security payments are paid for the benefit of the child (derivative benefits) due to the parents’ disability or retirement, in most states, there is a rebuttable presumption that these Social Security payments should be credited as child support from that parent because it is due to that parent’s prior earnings. This issue should be specified in the settlement agreement. The presumption may be different if the Social Security is paid due to the child’s disability.

Qualifying for Widow Benefits

What happens when Spouse B dies? Spouse A would be entitled to widow’s benefits because:

  • Spouse B was entitled to Social Security benefits.
  • They were married for 10 years before the divorce became final.
  • Spouse A is age 60 or over (or is between the ages of 50 and 60 and disabled).
  • Spouse A is not married.
  • Spouse A is not entitled to a retirement benefit that is equal to or greater than Spouse B’s benefit.

Additional ex-spouses can also get widow’s benefits if they meet these requirements.


A widow’s remarriage after age 60 will not prevent them from being entitled to widow’s benefits on their prior deceased spouse’s earnings.


A widow’s remarriage before age 60 will prevent them from receiving widow’s benefits unless the subsequent marriage ends, whether by death, divorce, or annulment. If the subsequent marriage ends, the widow may become entitled or re-entitled to benefits on the prior deceased spouse’s earnings beginning with the month the subsequent marriage ends.

As an example, assume that Lisa’s first husband died. At age 58, she met a wonderful widower and wanted to get remarried, but she realized that she would lose her entitlement to all of her deceased spouse’s Social Security benefits when she turned age 60. This may explain why many senior citizens are living together unmarried.


If you receive a pension from government employment that was not covered by Social Security, then any Social Security benefits you receive based on your spouse’s Social Security contributions (either as a spouse, widow, or widower) will be reduced by two-thirds of your government pension. Thus, the Social Security benefit is reduced $2 for every $3 of the government pension.

Other Issues & Considerations

  • Discovery requests should include your ex-spouse’s Social Security Administration report, containing past earnings and anticipated benefits.
  • You should also keep information on your ex-spouse including Social Security number, date of birth, place of birth and parents’ names.
  • Less than full benefits can be paid as early as age 62, but monthly amounts will be reduced if taken early. Even if the wage-earning spouse defers their benefit until age 70, the ex-spouse may still claim benefits at their age 62 (with the reduced amount).
  • A prenup cannot waive either party’s right to apply for and receive Social Security benefits.
  • There are other rules if you are caring for children under age 16, disabled children or if your ex-spouse is disabled or passes away.
  • Social Security benefits may also be reduced if you receive a pension from government employment.

Smart Planning for Your Future

The rules for Social Security benefits for former spouses are fairly generous, and the program can provide much-needed income during retirement years. Understanding the rules is key to receiving the maximum benefit to which you are entitled.


As you can see, there’s a tremendous amount riding on getting the right answers to your Social Security questions. Don’t let this complicated system get the best of you.

If you would like to discuss your personal situation, I encourage you to schedule a time with one of our advisors.

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This material is being provided for information purposes only and is not a complete description, nor is it a recommendation.

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