Social Security is a complicated program, with twists and turns in its rules that can trip people up even in the simplest of circumstances. For those who have gone through divorce or are remarrying, it can be even tougher to navigate Social Security's guidelines to prevent putting hard-earned retirement benefits at risk.
To avoid tripping over some of the pitfalls in the Social Security rules, you need to understand the basics of how the federal program treats divorced and remarried beneficiaries. Let's look at some of the most important elements anyone should keep in mind when their marital status changes.
1. Divorce can cut off potential spousal and survivor benefits
The biggest Social Security question divorced people face is whether they can still claim benefits from their ex-spouse. If you didn't accumulate a work history long enough to claim your own benefits, then running afoul of the divorce rules could leave you out in the cold. Even those with their own work history still could lose out on higher benefits available through an ex-spouse.
The answer hinges on how long you were married to your ex-spouse. If the marriage lasted 10 years or longer, then you generally have the right to claim spousal benefits based on your ex-spouse's work record so long as you remain single. If the marriage was shorter than 10 years, though, you won't have the right to claim spousal benefits.
The same rule holds true for survivor benefits, with one exception. If your ex-spouse dies, then you'll be eligible for survivor benefits so long as you were married for at least 10 years and remain single. But if you're caring for a child who is under age 16 or disabled and is also eligible to receive benefits on your ex-spouse's work record, then you can get survivor benefits even if you don't meet the 10-year rule. In addition, as you'll see below, under certain circumstances you might be able to keep collecting survivor benefits even if you remarry.
2. Remarriage can also lead to loss of benefits
Remarriage is becoming much more common, with four in 10 marriages in 2013 involving at least one spouse who had been married previously, according to figures from the Pew Research Center. Accordingly, it's vital to know how remarriage can affect Social Security eligibility.
In general, with spousal benefits, remarrying cuts off your rights to claim using your ex-spouse's work history. Instead, you'll have spousal benefit eligibility from your new spouse, which typically takes effect after a year of marriage.
The rules for survivor benefits are different and more generous. If you remarry before reaching the age of 60, then the same rules apply as for spousal benefits, and you'll therefore lose any eligibility for survivor benefits based on your ex-spouse's work history. But if you wait until age 60 or later to remarry, you won't lose eligibility for those survivor benefits. Moreover, you'll keep open the option of claiming higher benefits based on your new spouse's work at a later date.
3. Sometimes, being divorced is an advantage
Most of the divorce rules make it harder for ex-spouses to claim Social Security than current spouses. But in one respect, being divorced can actually make it easier to get benefits.
Typically, if you want to file for spousal benefits, your spouse has to file for regular retirement benefits. That can have consequences, particularly if your spouse is under full retirement age and would therefore have to accept lower benefit levels for life upon filing.
Divorcees, however, don't have to wait for their spouses to file for benefits before collecting their own spousal benefits. So long as the ex-spouse is at least age 62, you can file whenever you'd like, understanding that the timing of your filing can still affect the amount of benefits you receive, as it does with any other Social Security participant.
Divorce and remarriage have major financial implications, and Social Security can get complicated in dealing with them. Nevertheless, by understanding the basics of the rules covering marital status, you can ensure you won't be surprised by any of Social Security's more unfortunate provisions.