A Divorcee’s Guide to Social Security

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Social Security is likely one of the last things on your mind if you’re going through a divorce. But divorce can actually have significant ramifications on how much of a Social Security benefit you’ll receive once you reach retirement age. In some cases, you may receive an even bigger benefit than you expected, but in others, you might not get anything at all. Here’s a look at how divorce and Social Security are intertwined and how you can best plan ahead to make sure you receive the maximum amount of benefits possible.

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Qualifying Under Your Own Work Record

The Social Security Administration calculates retirement benefits first and foremost on the work record of the retiring individual. You can qualify for your own Social Security benefits by amassing at least 40 “quarters of coverage,” typically spanning a work record of 10 or more years. Once you reach age 67, you’ll receive your full benefit, although that can be lowered by claiming benefits at age 62 or increased by waiting until as late as age 70. If you qualify for your own Social Security benefits, your divorce might not have any effect at all on your payout. The SSA will compare the benefit calculated using your own work record and compare it to any potential spousal benefit you may qualify for, and you’ll receive the higher of the two.

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Spousal Benefits for Shorter Marriages

Unfortunately, many spouses don’t qualify for their own Social Security benefits, particularly if they were stay-at-home spouses before the divorce. If you were married for less than 10 years before you got divorced, you don’t qualify for any type of spousal benefit. This can pose some difficulties if you were a stay-at-home spouse with no work record. In that case, you’ll be left with no Social Security benefit at all, and you’ll have to rely on your outside savings and investment accounts to fund your retirement.

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Spousal Benefits If You Were Married at Least 10 Years

If you were married for at least 10 years before you got divorced, you’re in luck in terms of Social Security benefits. Spouses who were married for at least a decade are entitled to the same spousal benefits as if they remained married. There is no penalty to the ex-spouse, who still receives his or her own full retirement benefit. 

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Bear in mind, however, that you won’t qualify for a spousal benefit if you have gotten remarried, unless you were over 60 at the time of your remarriage.

How Much Is a Spousal Benefit?

The base spousal benefit is 50% of the amount paid to the primary beneficiary — otherwise known as your ex-spouse. However, if you retire before full retirement age, which for those born after 1960 is age 67, then your benefit will be reduced. If you claim your benefit as early as possible, at age 62, then your benefit might shrink from 50% to 32.5% of the primary worker’s benefit. With your own Social Security benefit, waiting until age 70 results in an increased payout, but this is not true in the case of spousal benefits, which max out at 50% of the primary beneficiary’s amount. But even that amount can be generous if you aren’t entitled to your own Social Security benefit due to the lack of a work record. 

Different Rules for Those Born Before Jan. 2, 1954

If you were born before Jan. 2, 1954, you can still claim benefits under the “file and suspend” strategy. What this means is that you can file for your spousal benefits at full retirement age and immediately suspend your own primary benefits. Then, once your own benefits max out at age 70, you can switch from your spousal benefit to your own, presumably higher benefit at age 70. This practice is no longer allowed, but it is grandfathered in for those born before the specified date.

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How To Claim a Spousal Social Security Benefit

The easiest way to claim a spousal Social Security benefit is online. You can also visit a Social Security office or call the SSA’s national toll-free service at 800-772-1213. You’ll need to provide documents that prove your eligibility, such as your birth certificate, proof of citizenship or legal alien status, and your final divorce decree. The SSA will also ask you for some basic identifying information, such as your name, gender, Social Security number and place of birth. You’ll also be asked for your employment information, along with information about your marriage(s). Assuming you are eligible, you will then provide the date when you would like to start drawing benefits, and the SSA will do the rest. 

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About the Author

After earning a B.A. in English with a Specialization in Business from UCLA, John Csiszar worked in the financial services industry as a registered representative for 18 years. Along the way, Csiszar earned both Certified Financial Planner and Registered Investment Adviser designations, in addition to being licensed as a life agent, while working for both a major Wall Street wirehouse and for his own investment advisory firm. During his time as an advisor, Csiszar managed over $100 million in client assets while providing individualized investment plans for hundreds of clients.
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