Most conversations about Social Security today focus on whether or not “it will be there” when you retire. Or, among beneficiaries, if payments shouldn’t go up faster than they do each year, compared with inflation.
What conversations aren’t about is what a godsend these monthly automatic bank deposits are as part of people’s retirement income.
We know married people can collect some benefits through their spouses. But what if you’re divorced? Is anything available? And, if so, how does it work? To answer that, we first need to look at what you are eligible for when you’re married. And then, what you might get when you’re divorced.
What can I collect from Social Security as a spouse?
As Social Security was being established, it created a ‘spousal benefits program’ that was meant as a form of retirement income for spouses who didn’t work because they stayed home and raised the family. The expectation was that they typically would have earned much less than the couple’s primary earner and needed some protection.
Working roles have changed with the times, and Social Security is gender-neutral. Spousal benefits criteria apply equally to ex-husbands as to ex-wives. In calculating any benefits today, Social Security uses something called Full Retirement Age (FRA). That’s when an individual is considered to have reached full retirement, sometime between ages 66 and 67, depending on their birth year. It uses the amount earned by that date as the basis for several calculations, including spousal benefits.
Briefly, any benefits claimed before FRA will result in the reduction of payments by a small percentage for each month you are shy of FRA. Yes, you can file at age 62, but you will receive less.
How do I qualify to receive spousal benefits?
As a spouse, you don’t have to have ever worked or contributed to Social Security. You just have to be married for a year to someone who qualifies to receive retirement benefits. You are claiming on your spouse’s work record, not on your own, and you can receive up to 50% of your spouse’s benefit at full retirement, or FRA.
Again, you can file any time after you reach age 62, but you’ll be penalized for not waiting until your FRA. If you have your own work record, but your benefits through your spouse are greater, Social Security will pay you the larger of the two amounts: 100% of yours or 50% of your spouse’s.
So, what happens to those rights if you divorce?
What can I collect from Social Security as an ex-spouse?
Many people are unclear about what happens if you divorce. And it’s essential to be clear because it could be a meaningful income stream for the rest of your life.
There is one catch: you have to have been married for a minimum of ten years to the person against whose work record you are claiming.
There are other requirements, too, but that is a major disqualifying one. Cases exist where couples reach, say, nine years and 11 months when the divorce decree is final, and the now ex-spouse receives nothing from Social Security. (Sadly, it could be due to ignorance, malice, or just lousy lawyering.
What’s useful for most couples to understand is that if Social Security pays benefits to a divorced spouse based on a former marriage, the original income earner’s benefits are not affected in any way. In fact, smart negotiators could use ex-spousal benefits as part of a negotiated settlement that is the best for both parties.
So, how generous is Social Security?
You’ll see the details below. But for a moment, let’s look at it from the perspective of the primary income earner. Say you marry at 25 and divorce after ten years. You do the same thing at 35. And again at 45 and 55.
If you remarry at age 65, soon, your new spouse can benefit from your work record by getting spousal benefits. And, as each of your ex-spouses reaches age 62, each one can claim ex-spousal benefits. That means that one spouse and four ex-spouses will be receiving benefits from one work record. (And, if you have the energy, you could add another ex-spouse or two.)
Your benefits are never affected.
Best yet, each ex-spouse can file with Social Security for benefits on your work record without anyone ever notifying you. They only have to meet eligibility requirements and provide Social Security with certified copies of marriage licenses and divorce decrees. It’s all arm’s length and as the income-earning former spouse, you cannot take away any benefits from an ex-spouse.
What other requirements do I have to meet as an ex-spouse?
Social Security has a few more requirements when you file for divorced spouse benefits:
- You must be unmarried.
- You must be divorced for at least two years.
- You must be age 62 or older.
- Your former spouse must be age 62 or older and be eligible for benefits for retirement or disability.
- You can’t be eligible for a higher benefit based on your own work record.
What is not required?
- You don’t have to have filed for your own benefits yet.
- Your ex-spouse does not have to be receiving benefits yet.
How are my ex-spousal benefits calculated?
Your benefits will be identical to those of a spouse: up to 50% of your ex-spouse’s full retirement (FRA) amount. The exact amount will be based on your ex-spouse’s work record and both of your ages when you file.
Spouses and ex-spouses share two more conditions:
- Your benefits will be maximized when both you and the income-earner are at FRA (again, somewhere between ages 66 and 67).
- If you work and haven’t reached your FRA, your earnings are subject to something called the Earnings Test. Over a certain income, you give up a portion of your benefits. But, once you reach FRA, the earnings limit no longer applies.
What if either of us remarries?
You will lose your ex-spousal benefits if you remarry, but you will get them back if your new marriage ends for any reason (divorce, annulment, or death). Yet, no matter how many times your former spouse remarries — and even if those spouses also receive benefits based on that same work record — your right to claim your ex-spousal benefits is not affected in any way.
What if my former spouse dies?
If your former spouse dies, your ex-spousal benefits convert to survivor benefits. Your benefits go from a maximum of 50% to 100% of your former spouse’s full retirement benefit.
Because of the difference in amounts, you will want to notify Social Security immediately. And, as before, it will be an arm’s length transaction.
As was the case with your ex-spousal benefits, your ex-spousal survivor benefits will not affect the benefits of any spouse or other ex-spouse.
One thing that will affect your eligibility for ex-spousal survivor benefits, however, is if you remarry before you turn 60. However, if that marriage ends for any reason, you can revisit that eligibility with Social Security.
Is Social Security eligibility worth pursuing?
The fine print on Social Security eligibility can be complicated, even more than described here. But, Social Security benefits provide a lifelong stream of income. And, you collecting your due is not hurting anyone else. For those reasons, benefits are worth pursuing, with or without expert assistance. And ‘with’ assistance might ensure that income.
*This article is for informational purposes only and should not be considered investment advice.