5 ways divorce could affect your Social Security benefits

A marital split can have long-lasting ramifications when it comes to your retirement benefits.

By Credit.com May 7, 2014 1:23PM
This post comes from Matthew Illian at partner site Credit.com.

Credit.com on MSN MoneyIf you’re getting divorced or remarried, "for better or for worse" and "for richer or for poorer" can have real meaning for Social Security benefits. Most retirees are uninformed about how Social Security benefits are calculated, and often overlook how their change in marital status affects this critical retirement asset.

Wedding cake with split couple © Mike Kemp/Jupiterimages1. If you get a divorce and your marriage lasted nine years and 11 months, you’re out of luck. But if your marriage lasted 10 years or longer and you’ve been divorced for at least two years, you’re eligible for a divorced spousal benefit.* You can claim either your own benefit or your ex-spouse’s benefit, whichever is higher.

2. You can also claim both benefits. Many divorced spouses optimize their Social Security by beginning their divorced spousal benefit at age 66, which is currently the full retirement age (FRA), and then switching to their own benefit at age 70.

For example, assume that Janie is eligible for a personal benefit of $1,500 per month at age 66 or a divorced spousal benefit of $1,000. If she files as a spouse first, she can claim $1,000 per month now and let her personal benefit grow to $1,980 by age 70, which is 32 percent higher than her age 66 benefit.

Technically, this method is called a restricted filing application because Social Security assumes you are filing for the higher of the two benefits unless you specify that you are restricting your larger personal benefit. When compared to simply starting with the larger benefit, filing as a spouse first will break even in 8½ years after age 66 (or by age 73½) and will provide Janie with an extra $68,160 in total benefits at her life expectancy. We’re not talking chump change.

3. If you begin claiming divorced spousal benefits between age 62 and FRA, you don’t get the opportunity to restrict your filing. Those who file for early benefits are required to take the higher of personal or spousal benefits. In fact, if you work during this time, your benefit could be adjusted downward due to the so-called earnings limit.

4. Getting remarried after a divorce generally means that you lose whatever benefit you may have been eligible for from your former spouse. For most people, this might not be a big deal because it only takes a year of remarriage to become eligible based on your new spouse’s record.

However, if your new spouse is a subsistence farmer, mafia boss, or engages in other activities that do not report income, you may not be eligible for any spousal benefits.

The only exception to this loss of benefits occurs if your second spouse dies. If you’ve been married for 10 years more than once, you could be eligible for both benefits, but you’ll only receive the higher of the two. However, if neither ex has remarried, they are both eligible to claim spousal benefits on your record.

5. You don’t need to wait for your divorced spouse to file for benefits to become eligible for spousal benefits. If you are both at least age 62, which is the earliest you are eligible for personal or spousal benefits, and you have been divorced for at least two years, Social Security allows you to make an independent filing decision.

Which path to choose

Because divorce and remarriage add complexity to your Social Security decisions, seek professional financial advice before making such an important decision.

Also plan to schedule an in-person meeting to file for your benefits. You’ll need to bring your marriage license, divorce decree and picture ID to the meeting.

For a mental challenge, I dove into the intricacies of divorce and remarriage by consulting King Henry VIII on his Social Security benefits. Spoiler alert: I was lucky to get out of there alive!

You can also check out the official Social Security publication for divorced spouses “If You Are Divorced” for more information.

*In 2,728 separate rules governing Social Security benefits, there is almost always an exception. In this case, there is an exception to the two-year period if you are already at FRA and your spouse is already started claiming. In this case, you can begin claiming divorced spousal benefits immediately.

More from Credit.com


May 8, 2014 8:34AM
I work with a guy who was on his third marriage. The previous two lasted over ten years each. All three spouses never worked out of the home. So from one wage earner, Social Security is now sending out 1-personal benefit check and 3-spousal checks. And why is there a funding problem?
May 7, 2014 7:48PM
This is another example of your money and your employer's money being misused..... No wonder it has so many problems.
May 8, 2014 10:17AM
SS a fair and square worker program, I think not! ...one of the biggies is that if you are injured early in you career and can find a doctor that will claim you as disable you can draw near or full SS for the remainder of your life..... most people working their full life and paying out each year on SS won't ever match that. Also a person marries 4 or 5 times and starts full SS at 70 enables those spouses to draw 50% of the worker's SS if they each were married 10 years.... sound fair? And they can draw it earlier than the worker did even if they never worked a day. There is more.....read the eligibility possibilities. Go to the SS site and check it out.
May 8, 2014 12:39PM

I'm 59yo and self employed.  I get sick thinking about how much I have paid in and what I get in return (if anything) when I can retire.  Add to that the avalanche of people are now retiring on disability doesn't really create much of a work incentive... I know so many people in their 50's out on disability. 


Like someone mentioned previously, add to this the "undocumented, never paid recipients" and the system is setup to fail .  I truly believe in my lifetime I will see the US become a 2nd class nation.  You can't have socialism and be a financially successful nation.  Lowest business creation rate in 30 years, highest unemployment among young people ages 24 to 29 in 30 years, yet taxes are higher than ever.

May 8, 2014 11:44AM
"If you get a divorce and your marriage lasted nine years and 11 months, you’re out of luck. But if your marriage lasted 10 years or longer and you’ve been divorced for at least two years, you’re eligible for a divorced spousal benefit.* You can claim either your own benefit or your ex-spouse’s benefit, whichever is higher."

In other words - if you stay married for more than 10 years, you get your ex HUSBAND'S benefits. YIPPIE!!!!

The United States is one of the only countries in the world where a person can make a career out of a ten year marriage and that same marriage can make the other person a wage slave for life.

Family Courts are not subject to the Constitution (they are court of equity, not courts of law) and SS feeds right into it.
May 8, 2014 12:10PM
Why are we such a nation of mentally ill Simpletons? Or is it only .50c an hour foreigners posting for the Kochs and their Congressional hirelings?
 I'm referring to those who pop up like mushrooms on manure claiming that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme.
(It IS a scheme, but only for the thousands of elders from Vietnam, China, Iran, Mexico, Eastern Europe, Ukraine, Cuba, Israel who gather WINDFALLS in free money beyond their previous dreams, and import even more of their frail elders here). 
Social Security is one of the most perfect programs ever devised by a government. Not a single penny of it should go to foreigners. 
May 8, 2014 7:18AM
Millions scamming the system is another reason to eliminate SSI.
May 8, 2014 5:11PM
Ah... Love is grand, divorce is a hundred grand!
May 8, 2014 2:50PM
This author left out something. If you were married and divorced less than 10 years and if one of the divorce spouse dies and the other who never remarried becomes disabled within 3 to 5 years of the ex spouse death, then the disabled spouse might be eligible for the others Social Security at  62. Check with Social Security with this. The law was changed in sometimes in 2010 -2012 as the time period. I am going by what I was told by a person who works for the Social Security Administration.
May 8, 2014 12:23AM

social security screws us by 'not' paying on the 1st of each month, instead paying on the second Wednesday of each month.  Look at your calendar and figure it out....some months you wait 5 weeks to get paid.

last month my husband receive his check on april 9th, this month he receives his check may 14th.......35 days between checks, this occurs 4 times a year.

May 8, 2014 9:23AM

"Also plan to schedule an in-person meeting to file for your benefits. You’ll need to bring your marriage license, divorce decree and picture ID to the meeting." 


Why is this legal? Sounds like discrimination to me - how can they expect folks to have all that documentation???

May 8, 2014 12:00PM

My divorce was final on May 7. My 10 year mark was that same month on May 25. Do I still qualify?

Please help us to maintain a healthy and vibrant community by reporting any illegal or inappropriate behavior. If you believe a message violates theCode of Conductplease use this form to notify the moderators. They will investigate your report and take appropriate action. If necessary, they report all illegal activity to the proper authorities.
100 character limit
Are you sure you want to delete this comment?


Copyright © 2014 Microsoft. All rights reserved.

Fundamental company data and historical chart data provided by Morningstar Inc. Real-time index quotes and delayed quotes supplied by Morningstar Inc. Quotes delayed by up to 15 minutes, except where indicated otherwise. Fund summary, fund performance and dividend data provided by Morningstar Inc. Analyst recommendations provided by Zacks Investment Research. StockScouter data provided by Verus Analytics. IPO data provided by Hoover's Inc. Index membership data provided by Morningstar Inc.