Social Security & Divorce: Timing IS Everything!

Did you quit your job and become a stay-at-home parent for years while the kids were growing up? Or, perhaps you have always worked, but never earned anything near the salary your spouse made. In both cases, there’s a good chance that the Social Security benefit you are entitled to based upon your own earnings record is less than half of your spouse’s benefit.(1) If that’s the case -- and you are considering a divorce -- understanding the rules for divorced spouse benefits could mean thousands of dollars in additional income each year.

The 10-Year Requirement

The key to being able to claim a Social Security benefit based upon the record of your ex-spouse sounds pretty straight-forward: Your marriage must have lasted at least 10 years. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. For instance, do the 10 years of marriage have to be consecutive?  Do partial years count?

Take the actual case of a couple who, for the sake of privacy, we’ll call Fred and Wilma.  When they got married, Fred was in his early 50s and made a lot more money than Wilma. Wilma was 30-something and a lot more attractive. It was the first marriage for each of them.

After nine and a half years of occasional bliss, they divorced in 2014. Though they still cared for each other, they realized they were not soul-mates. They parted as friends and -- for the first time in her life -- Wilma went to work.

Now it is 2016 and Fred is making plans for his retirement. He knows that his Social Security benefit -- $2,000/month -- is significantly larger than Wilma’s will be. In fact, fewer years in the workforce and minimum wage jobs mean Wilma’s benefit at full retirement age will be around $600/month.

Being the considerate guy that he is, Fred wonders if he and Wilma should get married again -- just 6 for months! -- so that she will meet the 10-year requirement and qualify for a Social Security benefit based upon his record. If Wilma waits until she is FRA, this would amount to $1,000/month instead of $600/month.

No dice. Since their divorce, a full calendar year has passed when they were not married -- 2015. Getting hitched for 6 months won’t help Wilma qualify for a divorced spouse benefit. Although they don’t necessarily have to include all 365 days, the ten years of marriage need to be consecutive.

The Widow/Widower Benefit

Molly has supported herself ever since she and Henry got divorced 20 years ago. Although he re-married, she did not.

Either Henry was a really vindictive guy or Molly just had bad timing. Their marriage literally lasted 9 years, 11 months and 3 weeks. (I could not make this up.) When Molly applied for Social Security two years ago she was told she did not qualify for a divorced spouse benefit because her marriage lasted less than 10 years.

Now Molly is 64. Her Social Security benefit is $900/month. An old mutual friend called to tell her that Henry had recently died. This potentially changes Molly’s status in terms of Social Security. If she qualifies as a “surviving divorced spouse,” she is entitled to the same benefit as a widow or widower: 100% of the amount Henry was receiving at the time of his death.

Molly recently learned that someone could qualify for a widow or widower’s benefit even if they were married to their deceased spouse for as few as 9 months. This would significantly boost her income because Henry’s Social Security benefit was $1600/month!

Molly visits her local Social Security office and learns that she does not qualify for a widow’s benefit. The 9-month requirement only applies if you were married to your spouse at the time of their death.  Obviously, this does not apply in Molly’s case.

Moreover, in order to receive a benefit as a “surviving divorced spouse,” your marriage must have lasted 10 years.  Because her marriage to Henry fell one week short of this, Molly is not entitled to any benefit based on his earnings record.

1. If both individuals are still alive, the maximum divorced spouse benefit is 50% of what your “ex” would receive at Full Retirement Age (FRA).