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Surprise! Divorced Spouses Can Get Social Security Benefits

By Donna Davis March 18, 2021 Managing Money

Many women believe that they are not entitled to Social Security if they are divorced. The truth is, you can get Social Security on your ex-spouse’s record, under certain circumstances, even if you have been divorced for many years.

There are two U.S. Social Security benefits you may be entitled to – spousal support and survivor benefits. If you qualify and your ex is still living, spousal support is 50% of his payment amount. If he is deceased, survivor benefits are paid at 100%. This applies if you are not eligible for benefits on your own work record or your payment will be relatively low.

To Qualify for Spousal Support When Divorced

  • You must have been married for 10 years or more
  • You must be divorced for at least two years
  • You must be unmarried
  • You must be 62 or older
  • Your ex-spouse must be eligible for benefits
  • Benefits on your record must be less than the spousal benefit

No matter how long ago you were married, if it was for 10 years or more, you may qualify for spousal benefits. If you remarry, in most but not all cases, you will not be eligible. Death, divorce, or annulment may be exceptions.

If you have reached your Full Retirement Age (FRA), you will receive 50% of your ex-spouse’s payment amount. If you have not, your payment will be reduced as much as 25%. For example, if your ex-spouse’s payment is $2,000 per month, at FRA you will receive $1,000 per month. At 62 your monthly payment will be reduced to $750.

If you choose to apply early, the reduction in your payment amount is permanent. You’ll need to consider the timing carefully as your decision has life-long consequences.

The Social Security law was written in 1935, when most women didn’t work. Today, the majority of women have earned enough on their own record to qualify for Social Security benefits. In many cases, 100% of your own benefit will be higher than 50% of your ex-spouse’s. If that is the case, you will not be eligible for spousal support. You may be able to collect survivor benefits later on, if your ex-spouse’s benefit was higher than yours.

If you are not sure you qualify, call Social Security or visit a nearby office. Be certain and get what you are entitled to. You may really need those extra dollars later on in life.

To Qualify for Survivor Benefits When Divorced

  • You must have been married for 10 years or more
  • You must be at least 60 years old
  • You must not remarry before the age of 60
  • Your ex-spouse must have been eligible for benefits

You may have been married right out of high school and divorced for decades. It doesn’t matter. If you were married for 10 years or more you may still qualify for survivor benefits.

Social Security has an extensive database, but they may not have information on a marriage that occurred 30-40 years ago. Regardless of how much time has passed, it is worth investigating to see if you are entitled to a larger payment. You will need to have your marriage certificate and divorce decree as proof of your eligibility.

We all know that, in general, men earn more than women. Even if you haven’t seen your ex for 20 years, if he earned more than you, you may be entitled to a higher monthly payment. So, though you may qualify on your own work record, check to see if you can get an additional amount from your ex-spouse’s record.

You can apply for survivor benefits at age 60. Two years sooner than spousal benefits. But as with spousal support, if you apply before your FRA the amount of your payment will be reduced. If you begin collecting at age 60, your payment is automatically reduced 28.5%.

A quirky thing here is that Full Retirement Age for survivors is slightly different than for retirement. It may be earlier than you think, and it’s important to know so you don’t miss out on any payments.

With survivor benefits you can do what is called “Claim and Switch.” You can claim survivor benefits at age 60 and later switch to your own benefit. You would do this because you can collect on your ex’s record while benefits on your own account continue to increase (about 8% per year). If you wait until age 70, your own monthly payment amount will be at its maximum and may exceed the survivor benefit you are receiving. Social Security will pay you the higher of the two amounts.

If you remarry before the age of 60, you will forfeit benefits on your previous marriage. If you wait until after 60, you will be able to receive those payments indefinitely. Your new spouse can receive payments on his own record at the same time, if he qualifies.

Survivor benefits are complicated, and many factors are considered to determine your payment amount including the age of the worker at the time of death, the number of years worked, and the level of his contributions. It is recommended you contact the Social Security Administration for information based on your personal situation. You cannot determine survivor benefits alone.

It is important to note that both spousal support and survivor benefits are subject to the earnings test. If you work and receive SS payments, there is a penalty for earning more than $15,720 per year if you have not reached your FRA.

Spousal support and survivor benefits can be critical in determining your financial status and quality of life. Many women struggle financially in their later years. We can’t foresee the future. Therefore, it is paramount that you are receiving all that you are entitled to so that you can have as much as possible when you may need it most.

Do you feel like you are financially prepared for retirement? What questions about Social Security or retirement planning do you have? Please join the conversation.

Disclaimer: Everyone’s financial situation is unique, so please check with your financial professional before making any changes to your tax, retirement or investment strategies. None of the information in this article should be considered financial advice.

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The Author

Donna Davis addresses the most important and timely issues facing retirees today, including Social Security, Medicare, boomer health, and the best places to live. She brings you up-to-date information in a straightforward, uncomplicated way.

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