Social Security Benefits for Divorced Women

Concerns about divorce don’t just end after you’re divorced. After your final divorce decree is signed and filed away in the court’s records, that doesn’t mean your life just bounces right back to normal. Especially if yours is a longer term marriage, you’re going to feel the ripple effect from your divorce through all areas of your life, including your retirement.

It’s really important, particularly in a longer term marriage, to ask the important questions about what happens to longer term assets, like his retirement account or pension plans. You’re probably aware that you have a marital interest in part of those accounts, but it’s often easier for women to see those kinds of accounts as less important than things like, for example, the marital residence. Why? Well, in most cases, at least in my experience, divorcing women are much more concerned about how to manage day to day affairs than they are about what might happen years and years down the road. It’s hard enough to pay the bills and get things taken care of in the here and now for most people, so they’re willing to give up things (or just not worry about things) that will matter later on because they’re so concerned about what next week is going to bring.

It’s important to ask the right questions (to the right people) and be sure that you’re taking the right steps both to protect yourself in the here and now, and also to make sure that you’ll be appropriately provided for in the long run. Ask questions to tax advisers, financial planners, and attorneys so that you can be sure you’re as insured as possible for whatever the world might throw out at you in the long run.

One of the questions that I commonly get, especially from women who have been involved in longer term marriages, is about social security. It’s an area of law that has evolved and changed over the years, and that will almost certainly continue to evolve and change. It used to be that a divorced woman couldn’t get social security benefits from her former husband’s earnings unless he had been paying support after the divorce, or at least was under a court order to support her, even if he wasn’t actually paying support.

What is social security?

In the United States, social security is a federal insurance program that provides benefits to people who are retired or unemployed and disabled. The way social security works is that a person collects benefits based on his or her own earnings from work. The problem with this is that, for a lot of women (though certainly not all), their husband was the higher wager earner (or, in some cases, the only wager earner) during the marriage. The money that the wife, as the lesser earning spouse, would receive through social security benefits is dramatically less than her higher wager earning husband (or ex husband) would receive.

Would I qualify to receive social security benefits as a result of my marriage?

If you’ve been married to your husband for at least ten years, you’re eligible to receive benefits based on your ex-spouse’s work. If you weren’t married to your husband for at least ten years, you’re not eligible to receive social security benefits based on your ex husband’s work, though there may be other government related benefits you qualify to receive.

If your ex husband is still alive

If your ex husband (or your soon to be ex husband) is still living, you have to meet certain criteria to claim your portion of his social security benefits. You won’t be able to claim them unless you meet all of these criteria. You can receive benefits from social security after your divorce if your marriage lasted ten or more years, you are currently unmarried, you are over the age of 62, the benefit you’re entitled to receive based on your own work is less than the benefits you would receive as a result of your husband’s work, and your ex husband is entitled to receive social security retirement or disability benefits. If he is entitled to receive benefits, but hasn’t applied for them and is over the age of 62, you can still receive benefits on your ex husband’s work so long as you have been divorced for at least two years.

If your ex husband is deceased

You can also receive a portion of your ex husband’s social security retirement or disability benefits if he predeceases you. If your ex husband is deceased, you may even qualify to receive social security benefits before you reach age 62, depending on your circumstances.

If your ex husband predeceased you, you can receive benefits in a couple of different ways. If your marriage lasted at least ten years and you’re not entitled to a higher social security retirement or disability benefit on your own, you can receive benefits at age 60, or 50 if you’re disabled.

If you’re carrying for your ex husband’s child, who is also your natural or legally adopted child and is under the age of 16 or otherwise disabled and entitled to receive benefits, you can receive social security income at any age. Your benefits will continue until the child turns 16 or, if disabled, is no longer disabled. You’re entitled to receive this benefit even if you weren’t married to your ex husband for the full ten year period.

If you have limited income

If you don’t qualify to receive a portion of your husband’s social security disability or retirement benefits, you may still qualify for some government based assistance. If you’re over the age of 65, or blind or otherwise disabled, and your income or other resources are limited, you may also be eligible to receive montly payments under the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program. You may also qualify to receive help with Medicare expenses with the Medicare Savings Programs. For more information about this program, you should contact your state or local medical assistance (Medicaid) agency, social services program, or welfare office.

How much social security would I qualify to receive?

The amount of social security that you could receive based on your husband’s work (or based on your own, if you worked more—or just as much—as your husband) depends entirely on how much and how long he (or you) worked.

What you receive from social security is based on a formula, and that formula is the same for everyone. Men and women are treated exactly equally with respect to social security. It’s really all about your earning history, so people with identical earning histories would be treated exactly the same through social security regardless of their gender. The only reason your ex husband might be entitled to receive more through social security is because he worked more or longer than you did.

Here’s the formula…

Your benefit as a divorced spouse is equal to one-half of your ex-spouse's full retirement amount (or disability benefit) if you start receiving benefits at your full retirement age.

What if I remarry?

You generally can’t collect social security retirement or disability benefits on your former spouse’s record unless your later marriage ends, either by death, divorce, or annulment.

What about my social security retirement or disability benefits?

If you are eligible for retirement benefits on your own record, the social security administration will pay that amount first. But if your husband’s social security retirement or disability benefit is higher, you’ll receive a combination of benefits that equals the higher amount. If you’ve reached full retirement age and you’re eligible to receive your ex husband’s social security retirement or disability benefits and your own benefit, you have a choice.

Where can I get more information about social security benefits?

If you need more information about what to do to claim social security benefits, or have questions about whether you qualify to receive them, you can contact the Social Security Administration by calling 1-800-772-1213, or visiting their website at www.socialsecurity.gov. There’s also a great brochure on their website called “What Every Woman Should Know,” which you can view by going to their website by clicking here.

If you’re ready to apply for social security retirement or disability benefits, you can do that online, too! Just click here, and we’ll direct you right to the page where you can apply online.

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