Effect of Divorce on Social Security Benefits

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: May 24, 2013

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Married couples are entitled to each other’s social security benefits, but what happens when the couple decides to divorce? While many people understand the rudimentary changes to taxes and estate planning that occur after a divorce, most do not understand, or even consider, the consequences of a divorce when it comes to social security benefits. Are you entitled to the social security benefits of your ex-spouse?

Ex-Spouses Generally Entitled to Benefits
You could very well be entitled to your ex’s social security benefits if all of the following are true:

  • You and your ex must have been married for at least ten years, 
  • You must be at least 62 years old, 
  • The benefits you are entitled to under your own account (if you have one) must not exceed the benefits you’re entitled to under your ex’s account, and 
  • Your ex must be eligible to receive his or her retirement or disability benefits.

If you meet these requirements, you can start to receive benefits even if your ex has not claimed his or her benefits yet. You will not, however, be able to claim benefits until two years after your divorce is finalized. Your ex will not receive less of his or her benefits just because you are receiving your share, and the benefits are based on your ex’s total contributions and not just his or her contributions during the marriage. Yes, you read that right. If you qualify, you are entitled to the benefits that are based on your ex’s contributions both before and after the divorce.

Remarriage and Benefits
If you decide to remarry before you turn 60 and stay married, you will lose the ability to claim benefits from your ex-spouse’s social security retirement account. Instead, you may have a claim on your current spouse’s account. However, if you are already receiving disability benefits or are a surviving ex-spouse receiving disability benefits, you can continue to receive those benefits even after remarriage if you are at least 50. If you have been married and divorced more than once and each marriage lasted more than ten years (and you are at least 62), you may choose the ex with the larger social security account to make a claim. The rules regarding remarriage and/or surviving divorced spousal benefits are complex. You can find more information about these rules on the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) website

How to Make a Claim for Benefits
If you are not sure you are eligible for benefits or if you would like to have an estimate of benefits you could receive as a surviving divorced spouse or an ex-spouse, you can contact an SSA representative using the SSA’s toll-free number: 800-772-1213. To find out how to apply for divorced spouse benefits and how to prepare for the application process, visit the SSA’s informational page on the application process.

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