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Will Your Divorce Leave You With Less Social Security Income?

By Christy Bieber – Updated Jan 3, 2022 at 3:57PM

Key Points

  • Your marital status could affect Social Security benefits.
  • Divorce can sometimes leave you with a reduced Social Security check.
  • Eligibility for spousal benefits and survivor benefits can depend how long you were married.

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Before ending your marriage, you need to read this.

Divorce can have a big financial impact as you go from a dual-income to a single-income household and split up your possessions. But while you may be focused on details such as who gets the house and how your bank account balance is divided, there's another issue you should consider as well.

Divorce can sometimes result in a lower Social Security income as a retiree, depending on how much you and your spouse each earned and how long you were married.

Two older adults in a field with their arms around each other.

Image source: Getty Images.

How could divorce affect your Social Security benefits?

There's a very important reason why divorce could impact the amount of Social Security income you receive: It could affect your eligibility for spousal benefits. These benefits are based on your spouse's work history. You could receive up to 50% of the amount your husband or wife is entitled to at their full retirement age, depending on what age you start your checks. 

If you didn't work for long enough to claim Social Security (at least 10 years), spousal benefits could be the only retirement benefits you are entitled to get. If you are eligible for benefits based on your own work record, your spousal benefits could still be bigger than the checks you'd get based on your own career in some circumstances. This could happen if your spouse earned a lot more than you or if you worked for less than 35 years, as Social Security benefits are based on average wages over a 35-year career and a shorter work history means years of $0 wages will reduce the overall amount you get.  

Unfortunately, if you divorce before you have been married for at least a 10-year period of time, you lose eligibility for spousal benefits based on your ex's work history. That means you'll have to claim on your own record, which could result in smaller benefits or no benefits at all.

Likewise, survivor benefits could also be affected if you divorce before at least 10 years of marriage. These are available only if you're widowed, but they could also provide you with much more income -- and with benefits at a younger age -- than your own Social Security benefits under certain circumstances.

What to do if divorce will affect your benefits

Obviously, if you're unhappy, you don't want to stay married for a long time just to preserve eligibility for Social Security benefits. But if you are close to the 10-year mark, you may want to consider trying to put off your legal divorce long enough to preserve your benefit eligibility.

If that's not a possibility, the loss of Social Security spousal benefits should be taken into account, both during your divorce settlement and when you're making future retirement plans. If you've been a stay-at-home spouse or caregiver for children and that's affected your future retirement benefits, you can make the case that you're entitled to more marital property to make up for this future loss. 

You can also plan to save more for retirement, as long as you're aware that your benefits will be lower as a result of your loss of access to your spousal or survivor benefits, or could anticipate working later in life to get in your full 35 years of earnings and maximize your checks. The sooner you supercharge your savings or boost your Social Security benefits, the more secure your retirement will be, even without the spousal or survivor benefits you may have been counting on.

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