Everything You Need to Know About Social Security and Divorced Spousal Benefits

This article was originally published in “The Street”

By Guest Blogger: Michelle Petrowski Buonincontri, CFP®, CDFA


As Baby Boomers continue to have higher and increasing divorce rates than other age groups, divorce later in life can bring increased retirement risks – there is less time (a shorter investment horizon) and opportunity to recover from losses. This creates more vulnerability to market fluctuations and retired spouses may also be confronted with unplanned liquidity needs that can no longer be met with wages or a salary.  Social security benefits can be an important part of a retirement income puzzle if you experience a late-life divorce..

Retirement and Social Security on their own are two complex financial planning topics.  Then  layer in divorce and things become even more complicated and confusing.  So let’s look at  some of the myths arounds Social Security so better informed decisions can be made when divorce or remarriage coincide with Social Security claiming.

Common Myths about Divorce and Social Security Claiming

Below are some of the misconceptions around Social Security benefits that may influence decisions around divorce or your retirement plan:

  • More than one spouse/ex-spouse can’t claim a Social Security benefit on a wage earner
  • He/she has remarried, so an ex-spouse can’t claim a Social Security benefit on their previous spouse’s earning record
  • If she/he claims a benefit on my work record I will receive a reduced benefit
  • My ex-spouse will find out if I claim a Social Security benefit on His/Her earning record
  • If we divorce, I receive all of her/his Social Security benefit
  • If we divorce, I receive my own Social Security benefit as well as ½ of his/her benefit
  • I can’t claim Social Security benefit based on my former spouse’s earning record because it was dis-allowed in my divorce settlement
  • I can’t claim a Social Security benefit based on my ex-spouses earning record and let mine grow (See the tip in Claiming on an Ex-Spouse’s Record below.)

The wording can be misleading, and there are some half-truths here so let’s explore some of this further in a general sense.

Basic Facts about Divorce and Social Security

When we’re talking about Social Security, marriage and divorce, 10  is the magic number of years married for someone to be eligible for Social Security or survivor benefits, based on the earning record of an ex-spouse. This is explained further in the “Claiming Social Security” section below.

From what I’ve read, the Social Security program has its own rules, just like the IRS, and those rules can’t be overwritten in a divorce settlement by state divorce law. So if your previous divorce settlement says you can’t collect Social Security benefits on your ex-spouse’s earning record, or your soon-to-be ex-spouse wants that added to your settlement agreement, contact the Social Security Administration for clarification at 800-772-1213 and peace of mind 

Additionally, both a current spouse and ex-spouse, can have a benefit based on the same wage-earners record. Consequently, even if your ex-spouse has remarried, you may still be eligible for a benefit, and the benefit is not divided among multiple spouses/ex-spouses.

For example

In the case of television personality Johnny Carson, his 1st, 3rd & 4th wives all collected Social Security benefits based on his earning record.  Unfortunately his 2nd wife did not because they weren’t married 10 years.

TIP:   There are 2 kinds of benefits, Social Security benefits and Survivor benefits – and the rules around remarriage are different.

Claiming on an Ex-Spouse’s Record

In general, there are five rules:

  • You had to be married for 10 consecutive years or longer
  • You have reached age 62
  • Your  ex-spouse is already claiming benefits


You have been divorced for two years or longer and your ex-spouse is eligible for social security retirement or disability benefits (even if He/She is not yet collecting) 

  • The benefit that you are entitled to receive based on your own work, is less than the benefit you would receive based on your ex-spouse’s work record
  • The spouse claiming a benefit on the former ex-spouse’s earning record has not remarried.  (This may vary if the ex-spouse has passed away and we are talking about a “survivor” benefit, see the Social Security website for more information this.) 

As a divorced spouse, your 

  • Spousal benefit will be ½ of your living ex-spouse’s benefit (even if you never worked) or your benefit based on your earning record– whichever is higher
  • Survivor or widow(er) benefit  – If your ex-spouse has passed away and you are eligible for a divorced widow(er) survivor benefit, you may receive the higher of 100% of your divorced ex-spouse’s benefit at your full retirement age or your benefit based on your earning record

Whenever you are eligible and apply for multiple benefits (as in the cases above) you won’t get the cumulative amount of the combined benefits (his/hers & yours), instead you will get whichever one pays the highest amount.  

TIP:  Divorced retirees who are age 62 or older by Jan. 1, 2016 and have a full retirement age (FRA) of 66, or if you were born before January 2,1954 and have already reached your FRA, you may choose to receive the divorced “spousal” benefit and delay receiving your own retirement benefit until a later date,  by filing a “restricted application” for just your ex-spouse’s benefit  from age 66 to 70. This allows your own retirement benefit (based on your record) to continue to grow at 8% a year – that’s 32% benefit increase if you wait until age 70 due to the delayed retirement credits. Then if you earned benefit is higher, you could switch to your own individual benefit at age 70 . This strategy however is no longer available for those born AFTER 1/1/1954.

Remarrying after Divorce

This is where it can get even trickier, depending on whether you remarried before age 60, after age 60, if you were receiving a widow or divorced spousal benefit before remarriage. Are you still married to someone now?  Are both spouse and ex-spouse living or is one deceased?

If you remarried before age 60 and are still married, you are not eligible to claim benefits on your ex-spouse’s record (even as a survivor widow(er) benefit).  If this marriage ends, you may be re-eligible for benefits on your ex-spouse’s earning record. 

However, if you remarry after age 60 you may be able to use a social security claiming strategy based on an ex-spouse if it’s favorable to you under certain circumstances.

For example:

If you were previously divorced, met the other eligibility requirements & the previous spouse passed away  and you now remarry after age 60, you may be entitled to the higher of a divorced widow(er) survivor benefit, a spousal benefit (based on your new spouse’s higher earnings record) or a benefit based on your earning record.

TIP:  Today, with the increase in divorce, there’s an increase in multiple remarriages.  So,  if you have more than one marriage that has lasted 10 years or more and ended in a divorce the earning records of both ex-spouses may need to be evaluated when deciding on a claiming strategy.


Have no worries, the Social Security Administration (SSA) will NOT notify your ex-spouse that you are receiving benefits based on their record, but you will need to know his/her Social Security number and have a copy of the finalized Divorce Decree. The SSA will look at you as single, married, divorced, or widowed and you may seem to fall into several of these categories which can be very confusing. Remember, you can’t be an ex-wife/husband of a living ex-spouse and a current wife/husband of a living spouse when talking about a spousal benefit. In this case you are a married spouse and can’t choose the better spousal benefits across both the ex-spouse and current spouse while they are both alive.

So, although you may apply for social security online via an application form  or your My Social Security account, or by calling 800-772-1213, it may be most prudent to speak with a financial professional specializing in social security claiming strategies first and then make an appointment to go into your local Social Security office.  

For a more detailed look at rules and scenarios see “Social Security Rules and Strategies for Divorcee Spousal Benefits”. It is also my understanding that the system’s rules and benefits are no different for same-sex marriages and divorces.

The Big Takeaways

  • If you were married more than 10 years, there may be some Social Security benefits available that you were not aware of, regardless of what your divorce decree says
  • If you are married close to 10 years, it may make sense for both of you to consider 
    • waiting until after the 10 years has passed before filing for a divorce
    • or filing for a legal separation in the interim, until the 10 year rule is met so that  the less-monied spouse can be protected financially under these social security benefits after the divorce. This does NOT impact the benefits received by the higher earning spouse
  • Talk with a professionals before making a final claiming decisions

This is not meant to be an exhaustive discussion on the topic, tax, financial planning or law advice; but rather items for consideration so that you may make better decisions with your team of professionals.  


By: Michelle Buonincontri, Certified Financial Planner, Certified Divorce Financial Analyst

[email protected]

5 Tips for Surviving Grey Divorce in Retirement

By Guest Blogger: Michelle Petrowski Buonincontri, CFP®, CDFA

This article was originally published in  “The Street”


You were happy “once upon a time” and planned a future…. Now you’re 55 and getting a divorce.  Or maybe you’re 60 or even in your 70’s  and now part of a trend referred to as “Gray Divorce”, “ Grey Divorce”, “Silver Splitters”, or even “Diamond Divorcees”.

We know from reports such as the “Aging in the US  Retirement Security Trends in Marriage and Work Patterns May Increase Economic Vulnerability for Some Retirees” report to the Chairman, Special Committee, that divorce can worsen and create vulnerabilities for retirees. Additional research from Bowling Green State University’s National Center for Family & Marriage Research, tells us that “Those who divorce earlier in adulthood have more time to recoup the financial loses divorce usually entails.. “In contrast, those who divorce later have fewer years of working life remaining and may not be able to fully recover economically from a gray divorce.”.  A late-life divorce can wreak havoc on even the most well-thought out retirement plan.  Consequently, divorce in retirement is a time when resources are diminished; household income has dropped, assets and cash-flow have been reduced, and spouses may find themselves vulnerable. This is a serious planning concern.

Financial planning was important for retirement before the divorce, and it can be even more important now if you are considering or going through a divorce.  A planner specializing as a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst  (CDFA) can help you make the most of your retirement and manage these considerations:

Expectations & Education

During this time, managing expectations and financial education is paramount as income is typically limited and there is less time to replace needed retirement savings. This may be the first time a spouse must balance a budget, pay expenses, or manage a large cash settlement. One or both spouses may need to consider working longer (delaying retirement), modifying living expenses and discretionary spending.  Many times, one spouse may be entering the workforce – either again after many years or even for the first-time. Life will be different post-divorce; and the thought of this can be daunting and stressful and decisions tend to be made on emotions rather than facts. Ensure you have others in your life to help support you during this difficult time. Learn as much about your finances as possible and get educated on laws in your state.  Consider alternate divorce resolution models such as Mediation, maybe join a support group or yoga, be “mindful” of emotions,  and try to keep “healing” as a central theme as you weigh choices.


One of the most important decisions made during the divorce process concerns the identification and splitting of the assets. A few things to consider:

    • Are you in an equitable distribution or a community property state, and what does that mean for you and your spouse?
    • Which assets & debts are separate, marital or community?
    • Are the assets liquid – do you have or will  you need access to cash? 
    • Are asset division decisions being based on an “after tax” basis so you are comparing apples to apples when determining what is equitable?
    • Retirement splitting – Is a QDRO needed? A DRO? An MRO? If this is a divorce that involves a service member – Are you a 10/10/10 spouse? A 20/20/20 spouse? Do you need to file something with Defense Finance Accounting Service (DFAS) for the  survivor benefit program or continued healthcare?
    • Pension division involves many things to consider. Just a few include the availability of COLA benefits to the non-participant spouse, ensuring benefits for the surviving spouse if the employee spouse passes (before and after the employee spouse begins collecting benefits), ensuring proper pension valuation and agreement on parameters used. Does a pension “immediate offset” make more sense than receiving pension benefits?
    • What social security benefits are you entitled to as a divorced spouse? A divorced widow? How is your social security benefit impacted by the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP).
    • Is your spouse agreeing to take over debt and can you still be held responsible for those debts if they don’t pay? What happens if they file for bankruptcy?
    • Are there things on the tax return like depreciation, long-term carryover losses, passive activity losses, or net operating loss from a business that need to be reviewed and negotiated?  Or are you taking over the rental property as your primary home after the divorce?
    • What changes will need to be made to Estate planning?  Will, Trust, Power of Attorney, Healthcare Proxy, Healthcare Directive, asset retitling, account transfers, QDRO execution.
    • How does credit law differ from divorce law?  How does tax law differ from divorce law?

Settlement Process

Perhaps one of the best ways to handle financial expectations & fears is to use a data driven approach to the divorce settlement process. While developing your settlement it is important  to understand the short & long term effects on cash flow, taxes and your net worth, 5, 10, 20+ years into the future, because what may seem fair or equal on the surface is not equitable many times when looked at from a longer range view.

Certified Divorce Financial Analysts incorporate retirement planning into the divorce process; focusing on cash flow, healthcare costs, taxes, real estate, & net worth. This kind of Divorce Planning analysis, like retirement planning, allows spouses to negotiate and make adjustments in the decision of division of property & go into the settlement with a clear picture of their post-divorce financial future. It creates an opportunity to set the stage for fair negotiations,  level set expectations, establish “post-divorce” life goals and create a plan that both spouses can take action within and live with.

Increase Cash flow

If reducing expenses & saving can improve the odds for retirement success, then not carrying a mortgage into retirement could help after a gray divorce when income sources are limited & healthcare costs are most likely higher. A reverse mortgage can be used as a strategy in gray divorce to assist in retirement planning.

Cash flow is usually a concern during and after divorce, as the resources earmarked to support one household are now supporting two, and filing single on taxes could reduce net income available for living expenses. A HECM reverse mortgage should be evaluated as a possible “tool” or option, for those homeowners over 62 (who have little to no mortgage obligation), as it can be used to generate cash to bridge a shortfall in a spending plan, allow the delay of claiming Social Security or help facilitate the purchase of a new home for one or both spouses. A reverse mortgage can even protect against sequence risk and declines in your portfolio (if you are drawing from here, you don’t need to sell in a down market to raise cash), has benefits over HELOC, or could be used as part of LTC planning to stretch retirement assets.


Other ways to manage this disruption, like in retirement planning, may include adjusting goals, expectations & time frames. This could look like working longer, delaying Social Security claiming, reducing expenses (for example: downsizing or moving), saving more or considering a Single Premium Immediate Annuity to create guaranteed income. See also “Divorce Mistakes That Can Cost You”.  With flexibility and a positive attitude this can be an opportunity to recreate the next chapter of your lives.

Remember, no “one” plan or option makes sense for everyone, but having the right professionals to consult with  can make a difference in your long-term financial outlook.  Both the IDFA (Institute for Divorce Financial Analysts) https://www.institutedfa.com/  and the ADFP  (Association of Divorce Financial Plannerswww.divorceandfinance.org/ can be resources for finding a CDFA™ (Certified Divorce Financial Analyst)  professional to support you during this time of transition. Consult a Certified Financial Planner for comprehensive advice on strategies that address your specific retirement planning needs; see www.CFP.net or www.oneconnect.net


By: Michelle Buonincontri, Certified Financial Planner, Certified Divorce Financial Analyst

[email protected]

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