Take Control Blog

Social Security Benefits after Divorce

One of the things that few people may think about during the heat of the divorce process is retirement, and particularly Social Security benefits.  But these benefits can become a vital source of income in your future.  So it’s important to know what your rights are and where you stand.

“We do many social security analyses in my offices regarding ex-spouse benefits, collecting one’s own and suspending benefit collection until ex-spouse reaches a certain retirement age,” says Jennifer Failla, a financial planner specialized in divorce matters.  “Social security is a grossly overlooked and underestimated retirement asset; it is guaranteed, inflation-protected and a major source of permanent income for a client.”

If you divorced and your marriage lasted longer than 10 years, you are entitled to benefits.  Your benefit will be based on your ex-spouse’s earnings record and if you meet all four of the following criteria:

  1. You are unmarried.
  2. You are 62 or older.
  3. Your ex-spouse is eligible to receive Social Security retirement benefits.
  4. Your benefits, based on your own work record, are not higher than the benefit you would receive based on your ex-spouse’s earnings.

In most typical cases, a divorced spouse has a right to receive half of the ex-spouse’s full retirement benefit.  However, this does not include any delayed retirement benefits that your ex-spouse may get.

Your benefits are yours even if your ex-spouse remarries, because benefits for the second or current spouse are calculated separately.  If your ex-spouse is receiving benefits on your work record, that will not impact your own benefits, nor the benefits due to your current spouse.

As always, the devil is in the details, and there are few relatively obscure “if’s” that are good to know:

  • If you remarry, you are not eligible for benefits from your former spouse unless the second marriage ends also, whether that is by death, divorce or annulment.
  • If your ex-spouse is already eligible for benefits and the divorce was more than two years ago, for example, you can apply—even if your ex-spouse has not started receiving benefits.  People married less than two years must wait the ex-spouse starts receiving his or her own benefits.
  • Until your ex-spouse is still working and earning a salary, those benefits that you would receive are subject to the same limitations.

“Deciding when to start taking your social security benefits is an important part of the planning after divorce.  Although you might be eligible to take benefits as early as age 62, these benefits are reduced and it may make more sense to wait till  the “normal” retirement age of 67 before requesting reduced benefits,” says Philip Shechter, a veteran CPA and financial planner with Cherry Bakaert & Holland.

The Social Security Administration’s website has a calculator that tells you what your benefits might be in relation to your ex-spouse’s or (soon to be ex-spouse’s) work record.  You can visit http://www.ssa.gov/OACT/COLA/RTeffect.html to access the calculator.