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Social Security Divorce

July 15, 2021

Many divorce cases fail to settle in a timely fashion because of fights over money.

How to divide the house, bank accounts, retirement accounts, investing accounts, and so forth can take a good deal of back and forth.

One asset some couples try to fight about is Social Security Benefits.

But I have good news!

Social Security Benefits are one thing you don't need to address in your divorce settlement.

The Federal government already has rules in place for how a divorced person can claim Social Security Benefits, and very little that your soon-to-be-ex-spouse does will affect your benefit.

Before we jump into how all this works, let's get our terminology straight.

Benefits or Spousal Benefits: In the context of this article, this means payments from the Social Security Administration to individuals during their retirement.

Insured Status: You have Insured Status if you've worked and earned enough Social Security credits to be eligible to receive benefits.

Retirement Age: The minimum age for retirement. This is age 62 for workers and age 60 for widows and widowers.

Full Retirement Age (FRA): The age at which a person becomes eligible to receive a full (unreduced) benefit.

Primary Insurance Amount (PIA): The monthly amount payable to you if you begin receiving benefits at Full Retirement Age (FRA).

Lifetime Earnings: A history of the amount of money you earned from employment each year during your working lifetime.

Read: Vital Signs: Checking Your Post-Divorce Financial Health

The Basics

When a person works, they pay into the Social Security system through a tax on their income.

This is known as OSADI (Old-age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance) or FICA (Federal Insurance Contributions Act) tax.

A worker must earn 40 work credits to earn benefits. When a worker has earned enough credits, they have Insured Status.

Work credits are earned by earning taxable wages, and a worker can earn up to four credits a year.

Put another way, most workers will reach Insured Status by the time they've been employed for 10 years.

When one person is married to another, that person may be eligible for Spousal Benefit based on their spouse's Insured Status.

The Social Security Spousal Benefit is 50% of the worker's Primary Insurance Amount.

A worker's Primary Insurance Amount is based on their Lifetime Earnings.

If both spouses worked, an individual may claim the higher of their own Benefitor their Spousal Benefit.

After Divorce

But what if you aren't married anymore? Under some circumstances, a divorced person may still claim their Spousal Benefit.

In order to claim their Spousal Benefit, a divorced person must:

  • Have been married for 10 years
  • Be currently unmarried
  • Have attained age 62
  • Have an ex-spouse who has Insured Status
  • Be entitled to Benefits based on their own work history that are less than their Spousal Benefit

You do not need to ask your ex-spouse's permission to claim your Spousal Benefit.

You need only to work with your local Social Security office to begin claiming benefits when you become eligible.

Read: Social Security for the Grey Divorcée


What if I remarry?

If you remarry, you may claim your own Benefit or a Spousal Benefit based on your new spouse's Primary Insurance Amount.

So long as you are married, you may not claim a Spousal Benefit based on your ex-spouse's Primary Insurance Amount.

What if my ex-spouse remarries?

You may still claim your Spousal Benefit as long as you still meet the criteria above.

Do I need to wait for my spouse to claim their benefit before I can claim mine?

No. If you've attained age 62 and met all other criteria, you may claim your Spousal Benefit.

What if my ex-spouse dies before I become eligible to claim Spousal Benefits?

You can still claim a benefit, but instead of a Spousal Benefit you'll claim a Survivor Benefit.

Do I need to show any paperwork when I claim my benefits?

Yes. You'll need your birth certificate (to validate your age), your marriage certificate (to validate that you were married), and your divorce decree (to validate the length of the marriage).

Where can I learn more about Social Security Benefits?

You can visit the Social Security Administration Retirement Benefits page to learn more.

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