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Understanding Social Security After Divorce

February 28, 2022

Social Security is one of the three major sources of retirement income alongside retirement and savings accounts. While retirement and savings accounts are subject to stops and starts and market volatility, social security benefits are steady and reliable. Thus, it’s no surprise many older Americans are especially dependent on their Social Security benefits. 

According to a 2015 survey by the Social Security Administration, about half of the population aged 65 or older live in households that receive at least 50 percent of their income from Social Security and roughly 25 percent of those eligible for Social Security rely on it for at least 90 percent of their income.

How does divorce affect your social security payments?

How does the death of an ex-spouse change the amount you receive?

How does remarriage adjust the amount of your social security check?

Knowledge is power and understanding each scenario helps you plan your post-divorce future. 

The following information is based on a presumption of one party in the marriage having earned less income throughout their working life than their spouse. If this is not the case and both spouses earned a roughly equal amount throughout their working lives, the following information is inapplicable. Remember, regardless of what you are entitled to based on the amount your ex-spouse earned, you still have your own social security benefit to draw from. 

How Does Divorce Affect Your Social Security Payments? 

If a couple was married for 10 years or longer and they divorce, the spouse who earned less is entitled to the greater of half of the amount of the higher earning spouse's Social Security benefit or 100% of their own benefit provided certain provisions are met:  

  1. the higher earning spouse is eligible for Social Security benefits (Note: eligibility and not application for Social Security benefits is the important distinction)
  1. The couple was married for 10 years before the divorce became final,
  2. the lower earning spouse is not re-married,
  3. the lower earning spouse is age 62 or older and,
  4. the lower earning spouse is not entitled to a social security benefit that equals or exceeds one-half the higher earning spouse’s benefit.

So, if the higher earning spouse is set to receive $2,500 a month in social security upon retirement, the lower earning spouse will receive a payment of half that amount and the higher earning spouse’s amount is not affected. 

Higher earning spouse $2,500/month

Lower earning ex spouse $1,250/month

If My Ex-Spouse or I Remarry, What Happens to Social Security Payments? 

Q: What if the higher earning spouse remarries?

A: If they are married to their second spouse for 10 years and they end up getting divorced, their second ex also receives a monthly benefit equal to half.  

The second marriage will have no effect on what the first ex spouse receives.The only time this will not be the case is if the higher earning spouse was to divorce a fifth spouse as the benefit stops with ex-spouse #4. 

Considering the 10 year marriage requirement for each marriage, it would be very unusual to ever have this scenario take place.

Higher earning spouse $2,500

Lower earning ex spouse #1 $1,250

Lower earning ex spouse #2 $1,250

Q: What if the lower earning spouse remarries? 

A: If the lower earning spouse is married and retires, they would look to their current spouse’s amount to calculate theirs. But if they have been married to spouse #2 for 10 years and they divorce,they are entitled an amount calculated as either: half of the first ex spouse’s benefit OR half of ex spouse #2’s benefits or their own, whichever is higher.  

Assume the lower earning spouse, who has not yet retired, starts to earn more money. In doing so, at retirement, they will be entitled to receive $1,350 a month from their own Social Security account.  When they retire, they choose between taking $1,350 from her own account, an amount based on half of spouse number #1’s account,  or half of spouse #2’s account. They may only choose one and will of course choose the highest amount. 

If My Ex-Spouse Dies, How Does This Change the Amount I Receive? 

What happens after the higher earning ex-spouse dies?

The lower earning ex spouse is entitled to widow/widower benefits if:

  1. the deceased was entitled to Social Security benefits,
  2. they were married for 10 years before the divorce became final,
  3. the surviving ex spouse is age 60 or over, or is between ages 50 and  60 and disabled,
  4. the surviving spouse is not married, and
  5. The surviving spouse is not entitled to a retirement benefit equal to or greater than the deceased’s benefit.

If a higher earning spouse leaves behind a second spouse, this survivor also gets the same if they meet the above five requirements.

A widow/widower’s remarriage after age 60 will not prevent them from being entitled to payments based on the deceased’s higher earnings.  

A widow/widower’s remarriage before age 60 will prevent entitlement unless the subsequent marriage ends, whether by death, divorce, or annulment.  If the subsequent marriage ends, the widow/widower may become entitled or re-entitled to benefits on the prior deceased spouse’s earnings beginning with the month the subsequent marriage ends.

Example: Assume Kathy’s first husband died.  At age 58, she met a wonderful widower, James, and wanted to get remarried but she realized that she would lose her entitlement to all of the deceased spouse’s Social Security benefits when she turned age 60. This may explain why Kathy and James may decide to not get married. 

Now that we understand what happens to social security payments after divorce, remarriage and death, we’re better prepared for our post-divorce future. Having a full picture allows us to ease some of the anxiety brought on by divorce, especially in our more “experienced” years. 

If you have questions about social security, retirement and understanding your financial future post-divorce, give us a call at 303 468-5626. Understanding your circumstances is the best way for a divorce mediator to show you your options and work with you and your soon to be ex on resolutions you both can agree to. 

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At Divorce Resource Centre of Colorado, we have a team of seasoned Certified Divorce Financial Analysts (CDFA) who provide a cost-effective, respectful mediation process that allows couples and families to rebuild a secure post-divorce future.
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