Social Security Benefits for Divorced Spouses

By Jonathan Peterson

Copyright © 2018 by AARP. All rights reserved.

The SSA allows spousal benefits for divorced spouses if the marriage lasted at least ten years and the former spouse who seeks benefits is unmarried. (It makes no difference to the SSA if the breadwinner on whose record the spousal benefit is based has gotten remarried.)

Benefit levels for a divorced spouse are the same as for a current spouse, but as with spousal benefits, the payment size varies according to the age at which the benefit is claimed.

If a divorced spouse and a current spouse each claim the benefit when each reaches full retirement age, their spousal benefit is the same size. A spousal benefit to an ex has no effect on the size of the benefit that goes to the current spouse. In theory, a worker could have a few former spouses, all of whom qualify for spousal benefits, as long as they meet the requirements.

Certain rules affect whether a former spouse may qualify for spousal benefits on the worker’s record:

  • Unlike a currently married spouse who is raising the couple’s child, a former spouse isn’t eligible for spousal benefits before age 62, even if he or she is raising the once-married couple’s child. The rules do, however, provide one break based on the former spouse’s age: If he or she is caring for the breadwinner’s child and has reached age 62, he or she may qualify for spousal benefits with no reduction for age.
  • Unlike a currently married spouse, a former spouse may qualify for spousal benefits even if the breadwinner hasn’t filed for Social Security benefits. In such a case, however, the breadwinner must be eligible for benefits, even if he or she hasn’t yet claimed them, and you must be divorced for two years.

In addition, you don’t have to be in contact with your former spouse. You don’t even need to know your ex-spouse’s Social Security number. Just provide the SSA with as much information as you can about your former spouse, and it does the rest to figure out your spousal benefit.

The remarriage rules are rooted in a time when policymakers assumed that wives were financially dependent on their husbands. As a result, the rules treated women and men differently. Originally, survivor and spousal benefits were allowed for wives but not for husbands. But over time, the rules changed. In 1950, Congress made clear that husbands and widowers also were allowed to get spousal and survivor benefits. For either gender, the survivor benefit would stop if an individual got remarried.

Later, lawmakers voiced a different concern — that the remarriage rules were discouraging unmarried older couples from tying the knot, because they didn’t want to lose their survivor benefits from a previous union. In 1965, Congress voted to limit the remarriage penalty for survivors. Rather than face a complete loss of benefits, widows who remarry at 60 and widowers at 62 would lose 50 percent of their benefits, rather than the whole amount. Two years later, disabled widows were given the right to remarry at 50 and hold on to benefits.

But even with this liberalization, the rules still made it costly to remarry, and many older Americans acted accordingly. News accounts at the time pointed to the phenomenon of older couples choosing to “live in sin” and protect their benefits, rather than get married. In 1977, Congress and President Jimmy Carter agreed to ease the “living in sin” rule further by allowing individuals who remarry after age 60 to preserve the survivor benefits they got from a previous marriage.

Restrictions on remarriage also affect divorced spouses. Congress has long assumed that divorced wives may face hardship. Over the years, it added spousal and survivor benefits for former spouses who meet certain requirements. Spouses who lose benefits when they remarry may be able to get them back if the newer marriage ends because of death, divorce, or annulment. In any case, if you remarry, at age 62 you become eligible for benefits based on the earnings record of your new spouse. You may still be able to keep survivor’s benefits from a former spouse, if those benefits are greater.