With more than 50% of modern marriages ending in divorce now may be a perfect time to brush up on the Social Security rules involving spousal and survivor benefits. Why? Because nothing about these rules is intuitive, necessarily reasonable, definitely not flexible and, most important of all, failure to follow these rules can be quite costly.
The LA Times recently offered a brief primer, highlighting the primary issues that could affect divorced people in their retirement years.
The Basics. If you were married for at least 10 years to someone who paid into the Social Security system, you are entitled to a spousal benefit, even if you are divorced from that person. Spousal benefits, if claimed at your full retirement age, usually amount to half of the wage earner’s full benefit (if you claim benefits early, the amount is reduced). If you worked for 10 years and paid into the system, you also may be entitled to benefits based on your own work record. However, you are only entitled to one benefit, you cannot claim both your own and spousal benefits.
60 is the Magic Number. If you remarry before age 60, you lose your ability to claim spousal or survivor benefits based on your former spouse.
Multiple Spousal Benefits. If you are single now but were married to more than one person for more than 10 years each, you may be eligible for spousal benefits based on the earnings record of each of those former spouses. However, you still are entitled to only benefit, though you may choose the one that would be most beneficial to you.
Survivor Benefits are Best. Remember, survivor benefits are 100% of the working person’s entitlement, as compared to spousal benefits which are only 50%. So, if your former spouse is deceased claiming survivor benefits may be your best choice.