How to Handle Social Security After Divorce

One of the challenges of planning for retirement is that an unexpected event, like divorce, can dramatically change your retirement income needs.

If you were counting on your spouse’s Social Security benefits to provide some of your retirement income, what happens now that you’re divorced?

Social Security law can be complicated, and you may unknowingly reduce the amount of benefits that you are entitled to when you go through the divorce process.

A knowledgeable divorce attorney can help you assess your eligibility for benefits, and help you secure the amounts to which you are entitled.

First, let’s address what Social Security is. Social Security is a federal government program that provides a source of income for you or your legal dependents (spouse, children, or parents) if you qualify for benefits.

While you work, you pay Social Security taxes. This tax money goes into a trust fund that pays benefits to:

  • Those who are currently retired
  • To people with disabilities
  • To the surviving spouses and children of workers who have died

Each year you work, you’ll get credits to help you become eligible for benefits when it’s time for you to retire. Spouses can receive partial or full benefits based on their spouse’s work record.

Many people are also entitled to benefits based on their spouse’s work record even after divorce, but there are certain criteria that the parties need to meet for this to occur.

Spousal benefits

To be eligible for Social Security retirement benefits on an ex-spouse’s work record:

  • Your marriage lasted 10 years or longer
  • You are age 62 or older
  • Your ex-spouse is entitled to receive Social Security retirement or disability benefits, and
  • The benefit you’re entitled to receive based on your own earnings record is less than the benefit you would receive based on your ex-spouse’s earnings record.

If you’ve been divorced for at least two years, and the other requirements have been met, you can receive benefits on your ex-spouse’s record even if he or she has not yet applied for benefits.

What happens if one of you remarries?

Benefits for a divorced spouse are calculated independently from those of a current spouse, so your benefit won’t be affected if your spouse remarries.

However, if you remarry, then you generally can’t collect benefits on your ex-spouse’s record unless your current marriage ends. Any spousal benefits you receive will instead be based on your current spouse’s earnings record.

Survivors’ benefits

If your ex-spouse dies, you may be able to collect Social Security survivors’ benefits on their account. Once again, you need to have been married for at least ten years.

If you are under age 50 when you start receiving these benefits, you must remain unmarried to collect survivors’ benefits on your ex-spouse’s account.

If you are disabled, it will not count against your access to benefits to remarry at age 50. For everyone else, remarriages after age 60 will not affect access to survivors’ benefits on a deceased ex-spouse’s record.

Ex-spouses are also entitled to survivors’ benefits on their deceased former spouse’s record no matter how long the marriage lasted as long as the ex-spouse is currently caring for the deceased spouse’s child.

The child needs to be either the biological or adopted child of the deceased ex-spouse, and the child needs to be under age 16 or disabled.