If you’re getting divorced or remarried, "for better or for worse" and "for richer or for poorer" can have real meaning for Social Security benefits. Most retirees are uninformed about how Social Security benefits are calculated, and often overlook how their change in marital status affects this critical retirement asset.
1. If you get a divorce and your marriage lasted nine years and 11 months, you’re out of luck. But if your marriage lasted 10 years or longer and you’ve been divorced for at least two years, you’re eligible for a divorced spousal benefit.* You can claim either your own benefit or your ex-spouse’s benefit, whichever is higher.
2. You can also claim both benefits. Many divorced spouses optimize their Social Security by beginning their divorced spousal benefit at age 66, which is currently the full retirement age (FRA), and then switching to their own benefit at age 70.
For example, assume that Janie is eligible for a personal benefit of $1,500 per month at age 66 or a divorced spousal benefit of $1,000. If she files as a spouse first, she can claim $1,000 per month now and let her personal benefit grow to $1,980 by age 70, which is 32 percent higher than her age 66 benefit.
Technically, this method is called a restricted filing application because Social Security assumes you are filing for the higher of the two benefits unless you specify that you are restricting your larger personal benefit. When compared to simply starting with the larger benefit, filing as a spouse first will break even in 8½ years after age 66 (or by age 73½) and will provide Janie with an extra $68,160 in total benefits at her life expectancy. We’re not talking chump change.
3. If you begin claiming divorced spousal benefits between age 62 and FRA, you don’t get the opportunity to restrict your filing. Those who file for early benefits are required to take the higher of personal or spousal benefits. In fact, if you work during this time, your benefit could be adjusted downward due to the so-called earnings limit.
4. Getting remarried after a divorce generally means that you lose whatever benefit you may have been eligible for from your former spouse. For most people, this might not be a big deal because it only takes a year of remarriage to become eligible based on your new spouse’s record.
However, if your new spouse is a subsistence farmer, mafia boss, or engages in other activities that do not report income, you may not be eligible for any spousal benefits.
The only exception to this loss of benefits occurs if your second spouse dies. If you’ve been married for 10 years more than once, you could be eligible for both benefits, but you’ll only receive the higher of the two. However, if neither ex has remarried, they are both eligible to claim spousal benefits on your record.
5. You don’t need to wait for your divorced spouse to file for benefits to become eligible for spousal benefits. If you are both at least age 62, which is the earliest you are eligible for personal or spousal benefits, and you have been divorced for at least two years, Social Security allows you to make an independent filing decision.
Which Path to Choose
Because divorce and remarriage add complexity to your Social Security decisions, seek professional financial advice before making such an important decision.
Also plan to schedule an in-person meeting to file for your benefits. You’ll need to bring your marriage license, divorce decree and picture ID to the meeting.
For a mental challenge, I dove into the intricacies of divorce and remarriage by consulting King Henry VIII on his Social Security benefits. Spoiler alert: I was lucky to get out of there alive!
You can also check out the official Social Security publication for divorced spouses “If You Are Divorced” for more information.
*In 2,728 separate rules governing Social Security benefits, there is almost always an exception. In this case, there is an exception to the two-year period if you are already at FRA and your spouse is already started claiming. In this case, you can begin claiming divorced spousal benefits immediately.
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