When the Social Security Act passed in 1935, it included benefits for workers, but not for their spouses. At the time, women who did not work outside of the home could not qualify for Social Security retirement benefits. A sweeping series of amendments enacted in 1939 extended Social Security to spouses and minor children. Wives who had not earned a social security retirement benefit or whose retirement benefit was less than 50% of their husbands qualified for the first time.
Catching up with a changing society, another reform extended Social Security retirement benefits to divorced wives in the cases when the divorce happened after a marriage longer than 20 years. The word “spouse” replaced the word “wife” in the 1970s, allowing husbands to collect retirement benefits on their ex-wives record.
Later, the length of marriage required to qualify for benefits after a divorce was reduced to 10 years. When SCOTUS legalized same-sex marriage in 2015, survivor and divorce benefits extended to same-sex couples.
This short history of Social Security shows how it has evolved over time. Ex-wives and ex-husbands can now all receive retirement benefits based on an ex’s work record. However, qualifying conditions must be met.
The rules can be confusing and difficult to keep track of, especially for those who have had more than one marriage and divorce or those whose ex-spouse has died.
When a divorced spouse claims their benefit at full retirement age or later, they will qualify to receive 50% of their ex-spouse’s Primary Insurance Amount (PIA) , so long as they have not remarried before 60 years of age and do not qualify on their own record.
Let us take the case of Jack and Jill, who are divorced. Jack’s PIA is $2,800. In this example, Jill does not qualify for a retirement benefit on her own record. She files for her divorced-spouse benefit at her full retirement age of 66. She will qualify to receive 50% of Jim’s Primary Insurance Amount, $1,400, as her divorced-spouse benefit.
The earlier you claim your benefits, the less you will get, consistent with other Social Security benefits. Conversely, you will receive more if you claim when you are older. To maximize Social Security benefits, you will need to delay them until 70 years of age.
However, divorced people who claim on their ex-spouse’s record will not get more if they delay their benefits until 70 years of age . They maximize them at full retirement age, 66 to 67, depending on the year of birth.
It’s worth noting that when Jill’s own benefit is more than 50% of Jack’s, she will receive her Social Security retirement. She will not receive her benefit amount as well as 50% of Jack’s!
Sometimes people wonder how their age difference with their ex-spouse can affect their benefits. The good news is that the ex-spouse’s age when they claim is not relevant. As long as Jill claims at full retirement age, she will receive her maximum benefit independently of the timing of Jack’s claim.
A person who claims his or her benefits based on a former spouse’s record must be single at the time. So unfair, you say? If Jill, in our example, has remarried, generally she could get 50% of Jack’s benefits, or her own, if her own is greater than 50% of their Jack’s.
Jack may be married or unmarried. It makes no difference. If Jack happens to be (re)married, Jill and the current wife could both get the 50% benefit from Jack’s record. For that matter, they can both get upgraded to the full benefit at full retirement age.
Suppose Jill, who receives the 50% benefit, remarries. In that case, her 50% benefit from Jack’s record stops, unless Jill’s new spouse also gets a divorced spouse benefit. That’s except if the remarriage occurs after age 60.
A marriage must have lasted for ten years or longer to claim Social Security retirement benefits on an ex-spouse’s record . Because of that requirement, sometimes people who think of divorce will delay until ten years of marriage are achieved. For example, if you’ve been married 9.5 years, it may be worth it to wait another six months.
Sometimes people are not sure when they actually got divorced. People often mark their court appearance date as the divorce date. In most states, however, the real divorce date is later than the court appearance. For example, in Massachusetts, it is 90 or 120 days later, depending on the type of filing.
People sometimes ask: what if you had two or more ten-year marriages?
Then, it can become complicated. Those who have divorced more than once from marriages of ten years or longer can choose the higher of the two divorced-spouse benefits, so long as they are currently unmarried.
For example, let’s suppose that Sheryl was married to Patrick for 20 years and John for 12. Sheryl has now divorced for the second time and has remained single for more than two years since her last divorce from John.
Patrick’s PIA is $2,600, and John’s PIA is $2,400. Let’s suppose again that Sheryl doesn’t qualify for a retirement benefit based on her own record. However, she is at full retirement age (66 or 67, depending on the birth year).
When Sheryl files, she can receive half of Patrick’s PIA because it is higher than John’s. And, no, she cannot get both Patrick’s and John’s retirement benefits!
If Sheryl divorced less than two years before, she must wait until her last ex, Patrick, in this case, has filed for his benefit. The worker on whose record the retirement benefit is claimed, Patrick, must have reached 62 years of age.
If they divorced more than two years before, Patrick’s filing status is irrelevant to Sheryl’s claim. Unless Sheryl tells him, Patrick will never know if his ex has claimed.
Let’s go over the case of Mike and Marie. They were married for more than ten years and divorced for more than two. Mike and Marie are both 62 years old. She has not remarried. Because she is single, Marie qualifies for a divorced-spouse retirement benefit based on Mike’s record, whether or not Mike has filed. It’s worth keeping in mind that the earlier someone claims, the less they get!
If Mike has passed away, Marie receives a divorced-spouse survivor benefit based on Mike’s record, if she is currently unmarried or, if remarried, remarried after age 60.
In addition, Marie’s benefit will be 100% of Mike’s Primary Insurance Amount (PIA), the amount that Mike would have received at full retirement age (66 or 67). In the case of Mike dying, Marie’s retirement benefits are capped to full retirement age.
What if the same two people have married, divorced, remarried, and divorced again? In that case, the length of the two marriages can be added together (including the time in between) to reach the ten years qualifying minimum. That is if the second marriage (the remarriage) happens before the end of the calendar year following the divorce!!
We can make sense of this chaos. Say Mike and Marie were married seven years from May 2002 to August 2009. They remarried in December 2010 and re-divorced in November 2013, for three years. The total for the two marriages is ten years. Mike and Marie meet the 10-year requirement because their second marriage happened before the end of the calendar year after the first divorce. If instead Mike and Marie had remarried in January 2011, the ten-year clock would have been reset to zero.
What if Jill, the person applying for the divorced-spouse retirement benefit, also worked for an employer not participating in the Social Security system? For example, many state and municipal governments are exempt from the Social Security system. If Jill worked for a local government, she could qualify for a pension from her employer. Then, her divorced-spouse Social Security benefit would be reduced by 2/3 of the amount of her pension because of the Government Pension Offset rule. Depending on the size of her pension, Jill’s Social Security benefit may be zero.
How would that work? Jill currently receives a $3,000 monthly pension from a police department in Texas. She has divorced from Jack after a marriage that was longer than ten years. Jack’s PIA is $2,800. Jill’s divorced-spouse benefit of $1,400 would be reduced by $2,000 (2/3 of $3,000), which reduces the benefit amount to zero.
If Jack dies, Jill becomes eligible for a divorced-spouse survivor benefit. After the GPO reduction she will receive $800 ($2,800 – $2,000 equals $800).
Suppose the spouse with benefit also qualifies for a pension from an entity that doesn’t pay into social security. In that case, the Windfall Elimination Program kicks in. That reduces the spouse with benefit’s payments, and the ex-spouse’s benefit adjusts downward as well.
To claim a divorced spouse retirement benefit, you need the name and Social Security number of your ex-spouse. You should also have the divorce decree. If you don’t have it, you could retrieve the ex’s Social Security number on an old document, such as a tax return.
When you don’t have the ex’s Social Security number, you may need more information, such as his birth date and previous addresses. In this case, the Social Security Administration won’t make the process easy.
Check our other article on Social Security by Phil Bradford