Social Security provides key income to millions of American families, and spousal benefits are designed to assist families in which one spouse either was the only paid worker or received far more in income than the other spouse. However, given concerns about the financial hardships that lower-earning spouses face if they get divorced, Social Security provides some benefits to divorced spouses that many people don't realize exist. In particular, two different types of benefits are available to some divorced spouses, and each has different rules that you need to understand in doing your financial planning.
Benefit 1: Spousal benefits for divorced spouses
If your ex-spouse is still living, then you can potentially claim spousal benefits on your ex-spouse's record. The first requirement for collecting spousal Social Security benefits is that the marriage must have lasted for at least 10 years. Shorter marriages don't qualify, and so in that case, you won't be able to claim benefits on an ex's work history.
The other requirement for spousal benefits is that you must not have remarried. If you have subsequently married someone else, then your only right to spousal benefits comes through your current spouse rather than your ex. Interestingly, if your subsequent marriage later ends due to your spouse's death or divorce, then you can once again be eligible to claim spousal benefits on your previous ex's record.
As for timing, you can claim benefits if you are 62 or older and your ex is entitled to receive retirement or disability benefits. One thing that's unusual about that requirement is unlike with a current marriage, your ex need not have actually applied for Social Security benefits in order for you to claim spousal benefits. However, you have to have been divorced for at least two years to get spousal benefits if your ex hasn't made a claim for retirement benefits yet.
Benefit 2: Survivor benefits for divorced spouses
If your ex-spouse has passed away, then a different set of rules applies, and you can sometimes claim survivor benefits based on your ex-spouse's work history. In general, the same 10-year marriage rule applies to divorced spouses seeking survivor benefits. However, an exception applies to survivor benefits if you are caring for a child who is either younger than 16 or disabled and was the deceased ex-spouse's natural or legally adopted child. In that case, shorter marriages still allow the surviving ex-spouse to qualify for survivor benefits.
The other difference with survivor benefits has to do with the impact of remarriage. If you get remarried before you turn 60, then you won't be allowed to claim survivor benefits based on your ex-spouse's work history. However, those who remarry after turning 60 can take advantage of another exception and are still allowed to claim survivor benefits. Note that this potentially will put you in a position to collect survivor benefits from two or more ex-spouses, but Social Security will only pay you the largest of the amounts to which you're entitled rather than letting you add separate benefits together.
Opportunities for planning
Most of the rules governing Social Security and divorced spouses acknowledge the reality that getting divorced couples to work together can be an impossible challenge. The requirements generally make it unnecessary for ex-spouses to cooperate, and that removes some potential sticky situations from coming into play.
Nevertheless, for those contemplating divorce, considering the impact on Social Security is vital. The most important thing for divorcing spouses to understand is that typically benefits that divorced spouses can claim won't have an impact on the benefits that a future spouse is entitled to receive. Nevertheless, it's important to make sure that divorced spouses will be provided for financially. Considering the financial resources that will be available to both members of the couple after a divorce will help avoid any possible conflict in the future and help in making more realistic financial planning moves as the divorced spouses approach and enter their retirement years.