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What you need to know about Social Security benefits for a divorced spouse

An ex-spouse may be eligible for additional retirement dollars.
By Rose Niang, Director of Financial Planning

It can be confusing to navigate the many options when it comes to claiming Social Security benefits. What if I don’t know when I should take Social Security? Do I need to worry about the Social Security trust fund being there when I need it? How do I know how much money I need for retirement? You may have lots of questions. But if you are divorced, it’s also important to know that you may be eligible to collect benefits based on your ex-spouse’s income record (even if he or she has remarried) if:

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

When can a spouse claim spousal benefits?

Regardless of whether your ex-spouse has applied for retirement benefits or not, if they qualify for them, you can receive benefits on their record if you have been divorced for at least two continuous years. If you are eligible for retirement benefits on your own record, the Social Security Administration will pay that amount first. If the Social Security benefit on your divorced spouse’s record is higher, you will get an additional amount on their record so that the combination of benefits equals the higher amount.*

You do not need to contact your ex-spouse to make a claim on their record, nor will they be notified of your claim. And any claim you make has no effect on their own benefits or the benefits of any other spouse.

If your ex-spouse died before reaching full retirement age, you may still make a claim when you become eligible for Social Security benefits. You may make an immediate claim if you’re caring for a minor child at the time of your ex-spouse’s death.

Social Security isn’t going away

While you consider your eligibility, you needn’t worry about collecting when the time comes. Yes, the Social Security trust fund is shrinking, but any fears of losing your benefits are largely unsubstantiated. A large portion of the American public rely on Social Security as their primary source of retirement income, and if they were to lose it, they would qualify for other government support programs. So it’s in the federal government’s best interests to keep the trust fund solvent for the long term.

It’s possible the Social Security Administration may increase the full retirement age or decrease benefits, but getting less money at retirement is generally considered the worst-case scenario. That said, saving more money to compensate for any potential loss of benefits is always a wise choice. If you can, it’s still best to wait until you’re 70 years of age to take your benefits so you can take advantage of the 8% annual increase.

Learning more about the Social Security application process

The Social Security Administration has a number of general resources online including an overview of the application process, an explainer video and an application checklist.

If you’re applying for divorced spouse Social Security benefits, in addition to the regularly required documents, you may also need to provide a marriage certificate and final divorce decree. The Social Security Administration has an online guide with all the information you need to apply for spouse’s or divorced spouse’s benefits.

Making the best decision for you

We recommend that you apply for Social Security retirement benefits four months before you want your benefits to start, so it’s important to do your homework ahead of time to determine your best eligible option and gather the information you’ll need for the application.

You only get one chance to make the right choices when claiming Social Security benefits, and the wrong decision could cost you thousands of dollars. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, and with so many different claiming options available, it’s important to work with a financial planner to discuss your options and make an informed decision for your unique circumstances.

 

* If you were born before January 2, 1954, and have already reached full retirement age, you can choose to receive only your divorced spouse’s benefit and delay receiving your own retirement benefit until a later date. If your birthday is January 2, 1954, or later, the option to take only one benefit at full retirement age no longer exists. If you file for one benefit, you will be effectively filing for all retirement or spousal benefits.

This material was prepared for informational and/or educational purposes only. Although the information has been gathered from sources believed to be reliable, we do not guarantee its accuracy or completeness.

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