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Divorced? Here's What You Need to Know About Social Security

By Dan Caplinger - Oct 12, 2017 at 6:04AM

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Make sure you understand the nuances of getting benefits in retirement.

Social Security provides retirement benefits for millions of American workers. Yet if you're divorced, the biggest question that you might have is what impact your divorce could have both on your Social Security benefits and those of your ex-spouse. In some cases, you can be entitled to substantial Social Security benefits based on your former spouse's work history. Regardless of what an ex-spouse does, however, your own benefits remain unaffected and available both for yourself and for a current spouse and family members.

Can a divorced spouse claim Social Security spousal benefits on an ex-spouse's work record?

The threshold question to ask is whether divorced spouses can claim benefits based on their ex-spouse's earnings history. The general rule is that if you and your ex-spouse were married for less than 10 years, then you're not allowed to claim benefits as a divorced spouse. If the marriage lasted 10 years or longer, then you generally can.

Most of the rules governing claiming Social Security apply to divorced spouses just as much as to currently married spouses. For instance, to claim spousal benefits, you must be at least 62 years old, and the amount is based on your ex-spouse's primary insurance amount and the age at which you claim your benefits. However, there's one key difference: if you otherwise qualify, you can claim spousal benefits even if your ex-spouse hasn't yet claimed retirement benefits.

Currently, married couples can't do that, because spousal benefits aren't available until the other spouse files for retirement benefits. The only requirement for divorced spouses is that you must have been divorced from your ex for at least two years.

Wedding cake with figurines facing away from each other.

Image source: Getty Images.

How does remarriage affect Social Security spousal benefits?

An essential thing to know about Social Security and divorce is that remarriage can put an end to your right to claim benefits on an ex-spouse's record. What's important is whether you have remarried. If your ex-spouse remarries, it has no impact on your ability to get benefits as a divorced spouse. However, once you get married again, you lose your right to benefits on your ex-spouse's work history for as long as your subsequent marriage lasts.

What about survivor benefits for divorced spouses?

The other issue that divorced spouses need to consider is whether their ex-spouse's death will have an impact on their benefits. Just as with currently married couples, the death of an ex-spouse triggers the right to survivor benefits as long as the marriage was long enough to meet the 10-year eligibility requirement. At that point, the surviving divorced spouse can claim survivor benefits on the deceased ex-spouse's work record. Again, the fact that your ex might have a new spouse and other family members eligible to claim benefits won't affect the amount you receive.

Remarriage works a bit differently with survivor benefits than it does with spousal benefits. If you remarry after reaching age 60, then you do not lose your right to survivor benefits based on an ex-spouse's work record. A younger age threshold of 50 applies if you're disabled. Remarry before those ages, though, and you won't be able to claim survivor benefits through your ex-spouse.

Make the right plans

Divorce can be extremely disruptive to your financial planning, and it's important to identify every possible source of future income to ensure your financial security going forward. Social Security can play an important role in protecting you and providing the money you need to make ends meet. Understanding the rules governing divorce and Social Security will ensure that you can take maximum advantage of the benefits that are available to you, and avoid making decisions that could jeopardize those benefits both now and down the road.

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