Social Security and Divorce

What you need to know

fyi50+: Gray divorce is a fact of life in this country. After age 50, many married couples agree to go their different ways for one reason or another. I asked Dave Freitag about Social Security benefits for couples who divorce. I was surprised to learn that one or both workers might be able to claim benefits from an ex-spouse.

Freitag: It is correct that one or both people can claim these benefits. But there are a few rules and checkboxes that exist before an ex-spouse can receive Social Security benefits from a former partner upon divorce:

1. A couple must have been married for at least 10 years. 

2. The partner requesting benefits from an ex-spouse must be single.

3. The couple must be divorced for at least two years before any benefit can be paid.

fyi50+: Isn’t it more complicated than that? Are there other things that must exist for an ex to claim benefits from a prior partner?

Freitag: The big issue is the difference in the size of their benefits. All spousal benefits, not to be confused with survivor benefits, are limited to 50% of the higher earner’s record. For example, if Bob’s benefit at full retirement age is $3,000 a month, then the maximum spousal divorce benefit for Mary would be $1,500 at her full retirement age. 

In this example, let’s assume that Mary earned a $ 1,000-a-month benefit based on her work record. If she is single and at full retirement age, Mary could receive $500 extra monthly if Bob is alive.   

fyi50+: For an example, if Mary collects $500 monthly from Bob, will Bob’s benefit be reduced?

Freitag: No, there is zero impact on Bob’s work record. Plus, Bob never needs to know that Mary is receiving the benefit.  

fyi50+: If Mary’s work record is over $1,500, can she still claim benefits from Bob? 

Freitag: No, in that case, the divorce benefits are gone. The Social Security Administration follows a “deeming rule,” which requires that the SSA pay Mary her own benefit from her work record first. If that benefit is less than 50% of Bob’s record, then she will receive a spousal benefit supplement from Bob’s record. If Mary’s benefit exceeds 50%, nothing will be paid to Mary from Bob’s record while he is alive.  

fyi50+: What happens if Bob dies before Mary?

Freitag: If Bob dies, Mary, as a survivor, would be eligible for up to 100% of Bob’s record, which would supplement her retirement benefit. By Social Security Administration rules, Mary is no longer divorced. She is a widow, and the rules for widows or widowers are more liberal than the rules for a couple when both are still alive.

fyi50+: I understand the couple needs to be married for 10 years or more. And I also know that the one claiming the benefit must still be single. However, what is that divorced two-year rule all about?

Freitag: Well, that two-year rule prohibits an ex-spouse from trying to block spousal benefits by delaying their filing strategy. Once two years have passed, in the example, Mary is free to file for benefits from Bob no matter what Bob is doing with his own record.  

fyi50+: Is it hard for someone who is divorced to file for Social Security benefits from an ex-spouse?

Freitag: No, it is a very straightforward process. The person must prove who they are, that they were married, and they are now divorced. Armed with these records, the Social Security Administration will walk them through the steps needed to start benefits. As always, the Social Security Administration website,, explains what to do and when. 

fyi50+: Would the Social Security Cost of Living Adjustment changes increase these numbers for ex-spouses?

Freitag: Yes. COLA changes will increase these benefits over time. As the old saying goes, just like a rising tide, the COLA benefits will increase the benefits for everyone 62 and older. Unlike the tide, however, the benefits never go down. They either stay the same or go up. 

fyi50+: This is very important information to know that there might be Social Security money on the table for ex-spouses after divorce. They need to ask about it.

Freitag: That is precisely correct.


David Freitag

David Freitag, an industry veteran in financial services and wealth management, brings a deep passion and unparalleled knowledge of Social Security filing strategies and retirement income planning to his current role as a financial planning consultant for the Advanced Concepts Design Group of Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual). His also holds a Master of Education and Bachelor of Science degrees from the University of Maryland.

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