Social Security Retirement Benefits & Divorce

Social Security Retirement Benefits & Divorce

SOURCE – MARKETWATCH March 16, 2024 by Alessandra Malito. (Click here to download pdf.)

‘His retirement benefits will be larger’: My first husband was wealthy. Can I claim his Social Security even if I married and divorced twice?

‘I was married to my first husband for 23 years before we divorced.’

Dear MarketWatch,

I was married to my first husband for 23 years before we divorced. I remarried but was only married for nine years before divorcing husband No. 2. He was quite successful and I know his retirement benefits will be larger than my own. I am confused on this point – a friend stated that I would be entitled to survivor benefits. I am planning on retiring at 67, my full retirement age.

Am I able to collect any benefits from husband No. 1?

Dear Reader,

Yes, you can claim on your first ex-husband’s record for benefits, but not your second ex-husband’s.

There are a few numbers to remember when planning to claim divorce benefits from Social Security. The first is 10 years – that’s the amount of time you must have been married in order to qualify for ex-spousal benefits, which is why you are eligible to claim on your first ex-husband’s record but not No. 2.

It doesn’t matter if your ex started claiming his own benefits, but he will have to be 62 in order for you to claim divorce benefits on his record. You must also be 62, unmarried, and you and your ex must be divorced for at least two years. If you were claiming survivor benefits on a deceased worker, you’d have to be age 60 in order to claim.

Keep in mind, the Social Security Administration will pay the highest benefits for which you are entitled. This could be 100% of your own benefit, or 50% of his full benefit at Full Retirement Age, said Lili Vasileff, a certified financial planner, certified divorce financial analyst and author of “Money & Divorce.”

You mentioned survivor benefits, but that’s separate from divorce benefits. Survivor benefits apply when a spouse, including an ex, dies. In that case, the benefit would be 100% of his primary insurance amount, known as PIA, if you waited until Full Retirement Age, according to Rob Schultz, a certified financial planner and certified divorce financial analyst, and senior partner of NWF Advisory in Encino, Calif.

Your ex’s benefits, or anyone he remarried, won’t be affected if you claim while he’s alive, but there could be a change in what you get if he were to die and have multiple dependents. There is a benefit limit that varies between 150% and 180% of the deceased worker’s benefit, and could affect you if your ex remarried and had other dependents, such as minor children or those with disabilities.

There’s another wrinkle to remember in all of this: If after turning 60 you choose to remarry, but you’ve been collecting benefits on your ex’s record, those benefits will be suspended and you won’t be able to claim on your new spouse’s record for one full year, Vasileff said, resulting in a gap in income.

You’re not the only one confused by all of this. The rules for Social Security claiming are complicated.

“So many people do not know about Social Security divorce benefits and more surprising is that their trusted advisers do not tell them,” said Jorie B. Johnson, a certified financial planner and founder of Financial Futures in Brielle, N.J. “One new client was in the process of getting divorced and she was less than a year away from the marriage lasting 10 years. I asked her if she could wait a few months to file for divorce to preserve her option for claiming on her ex’s Social Security benefit at retirement. Her attorney had not mentioned this to her at all!”

Note: An earlier version of this column didn’t specify that age 60 was the minimum age to collect Social Security survivor benefits.

-Alessandra Malito

This content was created by MarketWatch, which is operated by Dow Jones & Co. MarketWatch is published independently from Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal.

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