Social Security pays retirement benefits not only to qualified workers, but also to their spouses -- including divorced spouses. If the duration of the marriage and other criteria are met, a divorced person is eligible for benefits based on the ex-spouse's work history. Benefits paid to a divorced spouse do not reduce or otherwise affect the benefits earned by a worker.
Social Security uses the term "eligible worker" to describe someone who has earned retirement benefits by working and paying Social Security taxes for a specified length of time (in most cases, 10 years). The spouse of an eligible worker is typically entitled to a monthly retirement benefit equal to as much as half of the worker's own benefit. If an individual's work history entitled him to a monthly Social Security retirement benefit of $1,800, his spouse would then be entitled to as much as $900 a month. If that spouse was an eligible worker as well, she is also entitled to Social Security benefits based on her own earnings. Social Security would pay her a benefit based on her own work record, or based on her spouse's work record, whichever is higher.
A divorced spouse is entitled to the same benefits as a spouse who is still married to the eligible worker, provided that several conditions are met. Those conditions include the requirement that the marriage lasted at least 10 years, and the person seeking spousal benefits must be unmarried. If that person remarries she will lose the ability to claim benefits based on an ex-spouse's work history. In addition, the ex-spouse must be at least 62 years old. Also, the spousal benefit must be larger than any retirement benefit the ex-spouse may have earned based on her own work history. Finally, the eligible worker must be currently entitled to receive Social Security benefits -- although not necessarily actually receiving them. If the couple has been divorced at least two years, then the ex-spouse can receive benefits regardless of whether the eligible worker has applied for or begun receiving benefits. If they've been divorced less than two years, however, the eligible worker must already be drawing benefits for the ex-spouse to receive a benefit.
A qualifying divorced spouse can begin receiving benefits as early as age 62. However, to get the maximum benefit amount the ex-spouse must wait until full retirement age to begin drawing benefits. Depending on when a person was born, full retirement age rages from 65 (for people born in 1937 or earlier) to 67 (to those born in 1960 or later). The earlier a person starts taking benefits, the smaller the monthly benefit amount. For example, someone with a full retirement age of 67 who chooses to begin receiving benefits at age 62 will have the monthly benefit reduced by about 30 percent. For example, a $900 monthly benefit would be reduced to about $630. The longer the person waits, the smaller the reduction: approximately 25 percent at age 63, 20 percent at 64, 13.3 percent at 65, and 6.6 percent at age 66.
A divorced person who has remarried is no longer eligible to claim benefits based on an ex-spouse's work record. However, if that new marriage ends -- whether because of death of the new spouse, divorce or annulment -- the person is again eligible for benefits based on the first spouse's record. Alternatively, if the other marriage lasted 10 years, the person is able to claim benefits based on the second ex-spouse's record. Social Security will pay based on whichever record generates the highest benefit. A person who has been married and divorced multiple times can claim benefits based on only one ex-spouse's work record. On the other hand, more than one person can claim divorced-spouse benefits based on the same worker's record, assuming all the criteria are met.
Working and Benefits
The same rules apply to divorced spouses as to eligible workers when it comes to income earned while receiving retirement benefits. For those who have not yet reached full retirement age, Social Security reduces the monthly benefit by a percentage of the income received. For those who have reached full retirement age, however, there is no reduction for income received. Social Security has an online "Retirement Earnings Test Calculator" to help people estimate how much their benefits will be reduced.
- Comstock/Comstock/Getty Images