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How Will Divorce Impact Social Security Benefits?

How Will Divorce Impact Social Security Benefits?
Hendershot, Cannon & Hisey, P.C.

Divorce has many implications, not to mention the potential for significant changes affecting each spouse, their children, and their finances.

While financial considerations in a divorce vary widely from case to case, most divorcing spouses find themselves focusing on matters of property division, spousal support, and child support. Though these are undoubtedly important concerns which warrant the need for experienced legal guidance, there are a host of other concerns related to finances that get less attention, including things like:

  • Retirement plans and pensions (divisible in divorce)
  • Debts and liability (which you may have to split as well)
  • Estate planning and disabled dependents;
  • Social Security.

That’s right, divorce can and often does have implications when it comes to Social Security. What those look like for you, however, will depend on the unique facts and circumstances of your case.

Social Security & Divorce: Benefits On Your Ex-Spouse’s Record

Since being established under President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and the signing of the Social Security Act of 1935, the Social Security Administration (SSA) has grown to administer hundreds of billions of dollars in monthly benefits to over 54 million Americans.

Funded through taxes paid by employers, employees, and the self-insured, Social Security can make the difference for those with limited income, including people who are:

  • Retired;
  • Disabled; or
  • Survivors of insured deceased workers.

When it comes to a Texas divorce, matters of Social Security should be carefully evaluated, as they can have a major impact on one’s financial well-being, particularly in cases where a person is disabled, retired or approaching the age of retirement, or concerned about their future income and resources.

Because these matters are not insignificant, understanding how Social Security works, and how a divorce may impact an ex-spouse’s ability to collect benefits, is important to anyone who has been divorced, or who is considering filing for divorce.

Social Security Spousal Benefits: Retirement, Disability & Survivor’s Benefits

Most people who’ve worked and paid taxes throughout their lives understand they’re entitled to Social Security once they reach the age of retirement (or, less commonly, when they’ve become disabled or have had a spouse or parent pass away). What’s less well-known, however, is that people may also collect Social Security benefits under a spouse’s work history, even when they’ve been divorced.

This arrangement can be highly beneficial to divorcees of all types and ages, and especially to those who may not have worked and paid taxes long enough to secure a sufficient benefit amount. No- or low-income earning retirees, for example, can look at either their own work record (if they have one) or their spouse’s work history, and apply whichever provides a higher payout when it’s time to collect benefits.

For spouses who remain married until the time of retirement, spousal benefits are a great deal that may come with only simple questions about the application process. For those who have divorced or will soon be divorced, there can be many questions and concerns. We answer some of the most common below.

Q: Why Would I Need to Collect Social Security Benefits Under My Ex-Spouse?

A: Divorcees exploring their rights to collect retirement benefits (the most common type of benefits administered by the SSA) under an ex-spouse’s Social Security typically fall into two camps:

  1. People Who Wouldn’t Otherwise Qualify – Divorcees who did not work long enough, or pay enough taxes toward Social Security during their working-age years, may not earn enough “credits” to qualify for Social Security benefits. These are often stay-at-home parents who gave up careers to raise families and support a home.
  2. People With Ex-Spouses Who Have More Work Credits – Divorcees whose work history and credits are far less than their former spouse’s can collect larger monthly benefit payments on their former spouse’s Social Security record than their own. In this case, the SSA will award your retirement benefit first, plus an additional amount on your ex-spouse’s record so the combined total is equal to the higher amount.

In both situations, it is wise and financially prudent to seek spousal benefits – doing so doesn’t require a former spouse’s permission, and won’t affect their ability to collect benefits of their own. Of course, there are still qualifying criteria to meet.

Q: Do I Qualify for Benefits Under My Former Spouse’s Social Security?

A: Whether or not you’re eligible, or will be eligible in the future, to collect benefits under a former spouse’s Social Security depends a great deal on the individual circumstances at hand.

Generally, all of the following must apply to collect spousal benefits as a divorcee:

  1. You are at least 62 years old;
  2. You are unmarried;
  3. Your marriage lasted at least 10 years;
  4. Your spouse qualifies for Social Security retirement benefits (or disability benefits); and
  5. Your benefits (if you are entitled to any at all) are less than what you would receive based on your ex-spouse’s work credits.

Q: How Much Social Security Does an Ex-Spouse Get?

A: Benefit amounts vary widely depending on your ex-spouse’s work history and the credits they’ve earned. Other factors unique to your situation can also impact benefit amounts. Here are a few examples:

  • One-Half of Your Ex-Spouse’s Benefits – Divorcees who seek spousal benefits are entitled to one-half (1/2) of their ex-spouse’s entire retirement benefit amount (or disability benefit) if they themselves are of full retirement age. Benefits don’t include any delayed retirement credits a former spouse may receive.
  • Your Age – Full retirement age for anyone born in 1960 or later is 67. For those born before 1960, the full age of retirement varies in monthly increments (beginning at 65 for those born 1937 or before). You’re entitled to one-half your ex-spouse’s full retirement or disability benefits if you are looking to collect at the full age of retirement. If you’re younger (but at least 62), the benefits will be reduced in accordance with Social Security’s retirement age calculator.
  • When You Divorced – How recently you divorced may impact when you’re able to collect spousal benefits on your ex’s record. If your ex qualifies for retirement benefits but has not yet applied to collect themselves, you can receive benefits on their record if you’ve been divorced for at least 2 years.
  • If You’re Already Full Retirement Age – Anyone born before January 2, 1954, who has already reached full retirement age may choose to collect only their ex-spouse’s benefit, while delaying their own retirement benefit until a later date. For those born after 1/02/1954, the option to take just one benefit at full retirement age is not available; when you file for benefits, you effectively file for all retirement or spousal benefits available.
  • Whether You’re Still Working – If you’re working while receiving benefits on an ex-spouse’s record, or plan to work while applying, retirement benefit earnings limits will still apply to your spousal benefits.
  • Whether You Have a Pension – If you receive a pension not covered by Social Security (i.e. from a government job), spousal benefits you collect on an ex-spouse’s record may be reduced by the Government Pension Offset (GPO).

Q: What If Someone Remarries?

A: Remarriage can affect custody orders and other agreements reached in a divorce, which makes it no surprise that it can also impact Social Security and a person’s ability to collect spousal benefits. However, it still depends on the situation. For example:

  • If you enter into a new marriage after a divorce, you are generally not able to receive benefits on your former spouse’s record unless your later marriage ends.
  • If your ex-spouse remarries, you can still collect Social Security on their record, provided to meet the qualifying criteria mentioned above (i.e. retirement age, unmarried, and a marriage lasting at least 10 years).

Q: Can I Receive Survivor’s Benefits for an Ex-Spouse?

A: In addition to retirement and disability benefits administered by Social Security, divorcees may also be eligible to receive the same survivor’s benefits for an ex-spouse that a widow or widower would be eligible to receive for a deceased spouse, under limited circumstances.

Some considerations concerning spousal survivor’s benefits for divorcees include:

  • The marriage must have lasted at least 10 years;
  • If you remarried, you did so after you turned 60 (or age 50 if you’re disabled);
  • If you care for your ex-spouses child and they are under 16 or disabled, there is no length-of-marriage requirement, provided the child is your ex-spouse’s biological or legally adopted child;
  • If your ex-spouse remarried, you and their current spouse may still receive benefits;
  • Benefits you receive won’t affect any benefits your ex-spouse or their current spouse may collect.

Divorce & Family Law Team Serving Texas

Social Security may not be divisible in a Texas divorce, and it may not be as immediate an issue as other financial matters which can arise during a divorce case, such as property division. However, it can be an important consideration in some cases, especially in those involving longer marriages, non-working spouses, older spouses, and large marital estates or unique assets, among other issues.

In addition to addressing the most immediate aspects of cases, Hendershot, Cannon & Hisey, P.C. takes the time to understand clients’ unique situations and concerns, and address the less-common aspects of their divorce and its potential impact on their futures. That includes careful consideration of how a Texas divorce may affect Social Security, and whether spousal benefit eligibility or related issues need to be addressed when dividing debts or assets, determining support awards, or reaching resolutions to similar issues.

If you are considering divorce and have questions about its impact on Social Security or any other facet of your life, family, and future, our attorneys are readily available to discuss your rights, options, and what we can do to help. Call (713) 909-7323 or contact us online.