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Social Security Benefits for Divorced Spouses

A reader writes in to ask:

“It seems to me that most personal finance discussions overlook divorced people. For example, as a divorcee, I have different tax planning and retirement planning considerations than other people. Would you mind writing an article discussing how Social Security benefits work for people who have been divorced?”

There are two types of benefits that can be claimed based on an ex-spouse’s earnings record:

  1. Divorced spouse benefits, or
  2. Surviving divorced spouse benefits.

The rules for both types of benefits are actually pretty similar to those for still-married couples.

Qualifying for Divorced Spouse Benefits

To qualify for spousal benefits on behalf of an ex-spouse’s earnings record, you must:

  • Have been married for at least 10 years,
  • Be age 62 or older, and
  • Not currently be married.

In addition, either a) your ex-spouse must have already claimed his/her own retirement (or disability) benefit, or b) he/she must be eligible to claim such a benefit and you have been divorced for at least 2 years.

For the most part, divorced spouse benefits are calculated the same way as regular spousal benefits. That is, if you claim at full retirement age, your benefit will be equal to 50% of your ex-spouse’s primary insurance amount (i.e., the amount of retirement benefits he/she would receive if he/she claimed at full retirement age). Also like regular spousal benefits:

  • If you claim prior to your FRA, your divorced spouse benefit will be reduced, and
  • You do not get any additional benefit for waiting beyond full retirement age.

Important note: If you claim divorced spouse benefits prior to full retirement age, you will be deemed to have filed for your own retirement benefit as well. If, however, you wait until full retirement age to claim divorced spouse benefits, it will not be treated as filing for your own benefit — thereby allowing you to receive divorced spouse benefits for a few years while you allow your own retirement benefit to grow until age 70.

Qualifying for Surviving Divorced Spouse Benefits

If your ex-spouse has passed away, you may be eligible for surviving divorced spouse benefits on his or her behalf. In order to qualify:

  • You must have been married for at least 10 years,
  • You must be age 60 or older (or disabled and at least age 50),
  • You must not currently be married,
  • Your ex-spouse must be deceased, and
  • Your ex-spouse must have been “fully insured” at the time of his/her death.

In general, surviving divorced spouse benefits are calculated the same way as regular surviving spouse benefits. That is, if you have reached full retirement age by the time you claim surviving divorced spouse benefits, your benefit will be 100% of your deceased ex-spouse’s benefit. If you claim surviving divorced spouse benefits prior to FRA, the benefit you receive will be reduced.

Important note: If the (now deceased) ex-spouse claimed benefits earlier or later than full retirement age, your surviving divorced spouse benefits will be based on the benefit that the deceased ex-spouse was receiving rather than on his/her primary insurance amount.

If You’ve Remarried

If you get remarried, you will not be eligible for benefits on your prior spouse’s record — unless your new spouse dies or you get divorced (that is, divorced from your second spouse), in which case you will again be eligible for benefits on your first spouse’s record. If you second marriage also lasted 10 years, you can claim benefits on behalf of either ex-spouse.

Exception to the rule: For surviving divorced spouse benefits, if your remarriage occurs after age 60 (or after age 50 if you’re disabled), it will not prevent you from claiming benefits on behalf of your prior spouse.

How About An Example?

Anne is married to Bob for 15 years. Then they get divorced, and Anne marries Christopher. After 15 years of marriage to Christopher, they too get divorced. When Anne reaches age 62, she can claim spousal benefits on behalf of either spouse. Because Bob made significantly more than Christopher over the course of his career, Anne chooses to claim spousal benefits on behalf of Bob.

A few years later, Christopher dies. Anne is now eligible for surviving divorced spouse benefits on his behalf. Despite Christopher’s lower earnings, surviving divorced spouse benefits on his behalf are greater than divorced spouse benefits on Bob’s behalf (because divorced spouse benefits are based on 50% of the ex-spouse’s benefit, whereas surviving divorced spouse benefits are based on 100% of the deceased ex-spouse’s benefit). So Anne switches to claiming surviving divorced spouse benefits on Christopher’s behalf.

A few years later, Bob dies too. Anne can now switch to receiving surviving divorced spouse benefits on Bob’s behalf (which, because of Bob’s higher earnings, should be greater than the surviving divorced spouse benefits on Christopher’s behalf that Anne had been receiving).

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  1. Very insightful explanation and example which has me puzzled with a possible twist.

    After Bob and Anne are divorced, Bob remarries Suzy and is divorced after 12 years. Bob then marries Tina but is also divorced after 11 years. Bob is really unlucky with love.

    Is it possible for three spouses (Anne, Suzy, and Tina) to claim spouse benefits based on Bob’s income? Is there a rule that determines which spouse can make a spouse benefits claim?

  2. Rick,

    Yes, multiple ex-spouses (and one current spouse) can all claim benefits based on the earnings of one person.

  3. Thank you for explaining the rules but the rules really don’t make sense, as shown by the answer to Rick’s question. How does one person paying SS taxes entitles benefits to multiple ex-spouses, each at 50% of his PIA? And why does remarrying lose the benefits? “Honey I can’t marry you because you don’t earn as much as my ex. My Social Security would be smaller if we marry.”

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