2-minute article

What divorced clients need to know about Social Security options

When couples marry, they dream of building a life together, retiring together and growing old together. Divorce changes plans, alters hopes and dreams, impacts finances and disrupts strategies for retirement. Starting a Social Security conversation with divorced clients can be both helpful and reassuring.

The good news
Former spouses will have virtually the same Social Security options that they were eligible for when they were married, provided they meet certain criteria. When spouses have substantial differences in their earnings, the lower-earning spouse can receive the higher of their own earned benefit or a spousal benefit — up to 50 percent of the higher-earning spouse’s benefit amount at full retirement age (FRA). Divorced spouses who qualify can claim the same benefits on the ex-spouse’s earnings record (up to 50 percent of the ex-spouse’s full benefit amount at FRA).

Benefits for ex-spouses
To qualify for this benefit, a divorced client must meet all of the following requirements:

  • The marriage to the former spouse must have lasted at least 10 years. (This may apply to more than one prior marriage.)
  • The client must be at least age 62.
  • The client must be unmarried. It doesn’t matter if the former spouse has remarried or not. It also doesn’t matter if the client remarried, as long as they are not married at the time of filing. Remarriage after filing for benefits means the client can no longer claim benefits on the ex-spouse’s earnings record (although they may become eligible to claim spousal benefits on the new spouse’s record).
  • The ex-spouse must be eligible for retirement benefits (as long as the divorce has been final for at least two years, the ex-spouse doesn’t have to actually file for benefits first).

A divorced client claiming benefits on an ex-spouse’s earnings record can rest assured that the ex-spouse will not be notified. In addition, neither the ex-spouse nor the ex-spouse’s new family (if there is one) will be impacted by this filing choice.

Survivor benefits for ex-spouses
The survivor benefits that are available to married spouses are also available to ex-spouses — again, assuming the marriage lasted 10 years or more. The benefits for surviving spouses and ex-spouses are generally 100 percent of the deceased’s benefit amount. To qualify for survivor benefits on an ex-spouse’s record, a divorced client must be one of the following:

  • Unmarried
  • Remarried, where the current marriage occurred after age 60
  • Remarried, where the current marriage occurred after age 50 and the client is disabled

A vital conversation
A divorced client with an earnings history similar to their ex-spouse’s will simply rely on their personal earnings when they file for Social Security benefits. However, a divorced client who earned significantly less than their ex-spouse will likely have concerns about the possibility of more limited Social Security benefits. You can help clients be aware of their filing options by educating yourself on Social Security and directing clients to ssa.gov for more information.

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