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How your divorce could affect your retirement benefits

Timing can be an important factor in a divorce, particularly if the couple has been married just under 10 years. That’s because when a couple reaches the 10-year mark, Social Security’s spousal benefits kick in.

Social Security provides retirement and disability benefits based on a person’s earning history. The more a person has earned during his or her life, the bigger the benefit.

Spousal benefits allow an individual to collect retirement (or disability) based on a spouse’s earning history if it would result in a larger benefit than depending on his or her own earning history.

In fact, using the spousal benefit can have a major impact on the benefit amount, so much so that some couples are willing to put off their divorce for months or even years in order to qualify.

“Divorcing just shy of the 10 years can deny a person -- man or woman -- many thousands of dollars in divorced-spouse benefits,” the director of retirement and life planning at a financial education company said.

Here are the requirements that must be met in order for an individual to collect Social Security based on an ex-spouse’s earning history:

  • The marriage must have lasted 10 years or more;
  • The individual must be 62 or older;
  • The individual cannot be remarried;
  • The benefit using the ex-spouse’s earning history must be greater than the benefit based on the individual’s own earning history; and
  • The ex-spouse must be eligible for benefits. (If the ex-spouse is eligible for benefits but is not yet collecting them, the individual can still qualify for spousal benefits so long as the couple has been divorced for two years or more.)

If you are currently thinking about divorce or going through divorce and are just shy of your 10-year anniversary, talk to your divorce lawyer about whether putting a “hold” on your divorce would be a good idea in your situation.

And remember, the spousal benefit does not penalize the higher-earning ex-spouse in any way. Additionally, he or she can even be remarried.

Source: Market Watch, “How divorce, remarriage impact Social Security,” Robert Powell, Feb. 18, 2014

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