Life changes after divorce, and you may be uncertain about what to expect financially. Social Security is often a significant source of retirement income, so it's important to understand how divorce might affect you. Fortunately, there may be some stability for both people involved, even if your former spouse remarries or passes away. The Social Security Administration (SSA) has well-defined rules that allow spousal benefits to continue after a marriage ends.
Social Security and Divorce
Social Security benefits are often available for divorced couples — with no penalty to either spouse. But to get full benefits from an ex-spouse's work record, you need to meet specific criteria, including:
You must have been married for at least 10 years.
You must be unmarried.
You must be at least 62 years old (or 60 if your ex is deceased).
When you satisfy those requirements, you can potentially get a spousal or survivor benefit. However, you might not need to. If you're entitled to benefits under your own work record, the SSA compares your retirement benefit to any spousal benefits, and you get the largest benefit available.
Divorced couples may also wonder about privacy and how an ex-spouse might affect a Social Security benefit. A few key facts may be helpful, especially in less-than-amicable divorces:
An ex-spouse claiming benefits on your work record will not reduce your benefit.
Your ex-spouse will not know if you claim a spousal benefit.
A divorce decree cannot prevent you from claiming spousal benefits based on an ex-spouse's work history.
Spousal benefits allow you to get up to 50% of an ex-spouse's retirement benefit while your ex is alive. That income is available even if you never worked outside of the home or paid into Social Security. However, you lose that benefit if you remarry. Although if the subsequent marriage ends, you can potentially get a spousal benefit from either spouse, assuming you meet the requirements above.
Your age is crucial for spousal benefits. When you claim benefits at your full retirement age (FRA) or older, you get the highest monthly benefit available — that's 50% of your spouse's FRA benefit. For those born in 1960 or later, the FRA is 67, and it's younger for those born earlier. If you take Social Security before FRA, you get a reduced benefit, so it's essential to evaluate your claiming age carefully.
An ex-spouse can't prevent somebody from claiming benefits. Unlike with married couples, the "working" spouse does not need to begin receiving benefits before a divorced spouse can claim a benefit. As a result, if you were taking a spousal benefit at the time of your divorce, your spouse would also be getting benefits, which means your income will not be interrupted.
If your ex has not yet started taking benefits, you might have to wait for two years after the divorce to be eligible for spousal benefits (although you might be able to get benefits on your own record). But if your ex begins taking income during those two years, you become eligible for spousal benefits.
Divorced couples are also eligible for survivor benefits. If your ex-spouse passes away and you satisfy certain requirements, you can take over the benefit that your ex was eligible to receive. That's why it's important to keep track of an ex-spouse — the SSA might not automatically notify you if you can switch to a bigger survivor benefit.
The Bottom Line
Social Security and divorce can seem complicated, but for many people, benefits work as if the couple remained married. Spousal and survivor benefits are available, and ultimately, you're entitled to the biggest monthly benefit you qualify for. Be sure to keep documentation of your marriage and divorce — the marriage license and divorce decree, for example — so that you can apply on an ex-spouse's record. Consult with a Social Security representative to learn more about your options.