Divorce and Social Security: What You Should Know

Last week, I wrote about the importance of giving serious thought to when and how to begin collecting Social Security retirement benefits.

The column generated a whole lot more feedback and questions than I would have ever imagined. The questions all focused on ways to maximize Social Security benefits under a variety of circumstances.

By far, the leading category of questions came from divorced women who wondered about collecting Social Security based on the earnings records of their former husbands. Given the predominance of this category, I decided this week to address a typical question I received on the divorce issue.

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Q: I was married for almost 25 years. My husband divorced me to marry another. I was told by my lawyer that because we were married for more than 10 years, I could collect against his Social Security because the amount would be higher than mine. He has been married to his second wife for more than 10 years, and he is still living. If I collect against his (Social Security earnings record) and he dies, will I then be able to collect on what I have earned over the years, or am I out of luck? Would it be best for me to just forget about his? -- J.G., Milford, Ohio

J.G., you absolutely should be looking at your former husband's Social Security earnings record when planning for your own retirement. In fact, it's a critical issue that should be considered before the divorce paperwork is finalized.

While you should always check with your personal attorney for specific advice on your individual case, here are some general points to keep in mind: Let me start by explaining the basic rules about Social Security benefits, as it relates to divorced couples. The basic rule is that any time a marriage lasts 10 years or more, the divorced spouse with the lower earnings record can collect retirement benefits based upon the record of the higher-earning spouse.

Four Key Qualifications to Collect

This is true regardless of gender, meaning a man can collect against his former wife's earnings record if she collected a higher salary over their working lives. In most cases, however, it is the former wife collecting against the ex-husband's earnings record.

In addition to the required 10 years of marriage, there are four key qualifications to collect divorced spouse benefits:

The person seeking to collect must not have remarried.

This person must be 62 or older.

The benefit this person would collect based on his or her own earnings record must be smaller than what they would collect on their former spouse's earnings history.

And the ex-spouse must be entitled to Social Security retirement or disability benefits on their own.

The benefits collected by a divorced spouse does not reduce the benefits received by the other spouse.

If you remarry, you generally cannot collect on your former spouse's record unless the later marriage ends by death, divorce or annulment.

In your case, J.G., your 25 years of marriage would more than qualify you for a divorced spouse's benefit. And based on the wording of your question, I'm assuming you have not remarried and, therefore, are not disqualified on that count.

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