How to Stop Divorce From Devastating Your Retirement Savings

Smart planning now can ease the burden of saving for retirement on your own.

Kailey Fralick
Kailey Fralick
Jun 23, 2019 at 6:15AM
Investment Planning

Divorce takes an emotional toll, and in most cases, it also takes a financial one because you can no longer rely on your ex's income to support you.

Nowhere is this pinch felt more than in your retirement savings. This is especially true if you weren't working during your marriage and your ex was doing the saving for both of you. Saving on your own is likely to be more of a challenge, but here are some things you can do to make it easier.

Negotiate retirement savings

If you and your ex have approximately equal retirement savings, you may both agree to keep the money that's in your personal accounts and be done with it. But things are trickier when one has significantly more savings than the other. In that case, the person with less money in retirement accounts may negotiate for a portion of the ex's retirement savings.

Most of the time, retirement savings belong to the person whose name is on the account, but with a qualified domestic relations order (QDRO), your ex can legally transfer some of that money to you. The catch is, you can only claim retirement savings that your ex earned during your marriage. Savings that your ex came into your marriage with are not considered marital property, so you have no right to them.

Couple fighting over money over divorce papers

Image source: Getty Images.

You may also be able to claim some of your ex's pension. It takes time to sort all of this out, and you may have to pay fees for your QDRO on top of legal fees necessary to divide up the household retirement assets. If you and your ex are struggling to come to an agreement or to determine the long-term value of your retirement assets, consider hiring a financial planner who can help sort out these details.

Make a new retirement plan

Without your ex in the picture, your retirement needs will probably change. In some respects, it can be easier because you only have to save enough money to support yourself, rather than you and your ex. But you also won't have that other income to help you, so you'll have to pay expenses like housing on your own.

You may not know how much to budget for retirement living costs when you're newly divorced, but after things have settled down and you have a better sense of how much you're spending, create a new retirement plan using this information. Subtract your ideal retirement age from your estimated life expectancy to determine your estimated length of retirement. Next, total up your predicted annual living expenses in retirement and multiply this by the length of your retirement, adding 3% per year for inflation. A retirement calculator can help with this. It should also give you some idea of how much you need to save each month to hit your goal. Subtract any money you expect to get from Social Security or a pension to figure out how much you need to save on your own.

You may need to make adjustments, like increasing your monthly retirement contributions or pushing back your planned retirement date. You could also try cutting your living expenses today to free up more cash for retirement. It's important to make these changes as soon as possible to keep your retirement on track.


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Look into claiming Social Security on your ex's work record

If you and your ex were married for at least 10 years, you are eligible to claim Social Security benefits on your ex's work record, even if your former spouse remarries, as long as you meet the following criteria:

  • You remain unmarried.
  • You're 62 or older.
  • Your ex-spouse is entitled to retirement or disability benefits.
  • The benefit you're eligible for on your ex-spouse's work record is greater than the benefit you're entitled to based on your own work record.

If you meet the above criteria, you'll automatically receive half the Social Security benefit your ex would be entitled to if your former spouse began taking benefits at full retirement age, which is 66 or 67 depending on birth year. You can claim benefits even if your ex has not applied for Social Security yet, as long as you're 62 or older and you've been divorced for at least two years. Taking benefits on your ex's work record won't impact Social Security benefits for your former spouse. But if you remarry, you can no longer claim Social Security benefits on your ex's work record, though you may still be able to claim on your own or your new spouse's work record.

Check with the Social Security Administration if you believe you're eligible for benefits on your ex's work record. This can help reduce how much you need to save for retirement.

Saving for retirement is a challenge for almost everyone, especially when you're doing it alone. But by following the above tips, you can ease some of the strain. If you're still struggling, consult a financial adviser who can help with your specific situation.