Money Matters: How divorce affects Social Security benefits

Sara Stout Ashcraft
BridgeTower Media Newswires

In facing a divorce, parties are often focused early on the retirement accounts — their own and, sometimes even more, those of the other party. However, questions about Social Security benefits tend to come later. There is a great deal of misunderstanding as to what is actually available under Social Security, and it’s good to know what is offered. Until recently, the information on the federal government’s Social Security website was difficult to decipher. However, the Social Security website has been revamped and is now much more informative. Following is some basic information relative to Social Security and how it plays out in a divorce.

Social Security Retirement Age: The age a person needs to be in order to receive full retirement benefits is based on their birth year. People born between 1943 and 1954 can collect full benefits at age 66. People born between 1955 and 1959 have additional months added to age 66 to receive full benefits. Those born in 1960 and later must be 67 to collect full benefits. While a person can apply for Social Security benefits starting at age 62, the monthly benefits will be significantly reduced. People can also defer claiming their benefits and, with each year until age 70, increase the amount of their monthly benefits.

Social Security Disability Insurance: A person who has contributed to Social Security for a required number of “work credits” (usually 10 years) and has a documented disabling medical condition can apply for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) payments, which are equal to what that person would be entitled to at the full retirement age. When the person reaches full retirement age, the disability benefits will be converted to regular Social Security retirement benefits. Note: There is a completely separate federal program for low-income individuals who meet disability requirements but do not have enough work credits, Supplemental Security Income (SSI). When a divorcing disabled spouse is married, they may not be eligible for SSI benefits due to the other spouse’s income. However, when the divorce occurs, that person may become eligible for SSI benefits.

Derivative Family Benefits: Family members of a person receiving Social Security retirement benefits may be entitled to some derivative financial benefits of their own: Spouses 62 or older. Spouses under 62 who are caring for the recipient’s child who is under 16 or disabled. Also, the recipient’s child who is unmarried and younger than 18, or 18-19 and is a full-time high school student. Depending on the circumstances, a step-child, grandchild, step-grandchild, or adopted child may also be eligible for family benefits.

Divorced Spouses: A divorced spouse may be able to get benefits based on the former spouse’s Social Security record. However, certain requirements need to be met: 1) The marriage must have lasted at least 10 years. 2) The divorced spouse must be at least 62 years old and unmarried. 3) The divorced spouse can claim against the former spouse’s benefits even if the former spouse has not retired. However, both of the former spouses must be at least age 62 and divorced at least two years. Additionally, if the divorced spouse was born before January 2, 1954, and has reached full retirement age, the divorced spouse can choose to receive the other spouse’s benefits up front and delay receiving their own benefits until later. If the divorced spouse’s birthday is after that date, the divorced spouse does not get to take one, then switch to the other, and must choose whether to claim on their own record or derivative benefits from the former spouse’s record.

When a divorced spouse claims against the former spouse’s record, the amount of benefits that the divorced spouse is eligible for is based on a percentage of the former spouse’s benefits, and the amount the divorced spouse receives has no effect on the amount of Social Security benefits that the former spouse or the former spouse’s future spouse is entitled to. In other words, the amount paid to the divorced spouse is not subtracted from the former spouse’s benefits.

There are a number of other factors that can affect the divorced spouse’s Social Security choices and benefits. Much of this information is available on the Social Security website, but if the answer isn’t clear it is best to contact the local Social Security Office.


Sara Stout Ashcraft is a partner in Ashcraft, Franklin, Young & Peters LLP. She concentrates her practice in the areas of matrimonial and family law.