Social Security benefits after divorce: In some cases ‘your ex is worth twice as much dead than alive,’ expert says


The rules around claiming Social Security benefits are full of caveats and nuances.

Among them is a valuable quirk for certain divorced spouses: In many cases, the monthly Social Security benefit you can claim based on a former spouse’s work history essentially doubles when they die.

“Your ex is worth twice as much dead than alive,” said Mary Beth Franklin, a certified financial planner and Social Security expert. She spoke at Financial Advisor Magazine’s recent Invest in Women conference in West Palm Beach, Florida.

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The same concept can also apply for married couples. The calculus assumes the first spouse to die had a larger Social Security retirement benefit than the survivor.

Women in heterosexual couples tend to derive the most value from these Social Security rules, since they tend to live longer and retire with less wealth, financial planners said.

“Social Security is one of the most popular benefits the government offers,” said Natalie Colley, a CFP based in New York and senior lead advisor at Francis Financial. “And it’s a lifetime annuity. It’s one of the best [financial] protections anyone has against old age.”

Social Security rules for married, divorced spouses

The federal government determines Social Security benefits based on age and earnings history.

Married couples are eligible for spousal benefits. The lower earner can receive a benefit worth up to 50% of the benefit to which their spouse is entitled at full retirement age.

Here’s an example from the Social Security Administration: Sandy qualifies for a monthly retirement benefit of $1,000 based on her earnings record. She also qualifies for a spouse’s benefit of $1,250. At Sandy’s full retirement age, she’d get her $1,000 benefit plus $250 from her spouse’s benefit, for a total of $1,250.

The formula for divorced couples — when both individuals are alive — is similar: An ex is entitled to up to half of their ex-spouse’s Social Security benefit.

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The claimant must be at least 62 years old and must not be remarried. (Your ex must also qualify for benefits, meaning they’d generally also be over 62.) To qualify, the couple must have been married for 10 or more years before divorcing.  

“There must be at least a decade between ‘I do’ and ‘I don’t,'” Franklin said.

Additionally, the couple must be divorced for at least two continuous years.

Claiming benefits based on an ex-spouse’s earnings record doesn’t affect or reduce that former spouse’s benefits, Colley said. The ex is never even notified by the Social Security Administration about a claim, she added.

She recommends retaining an ex-spouse’s Social Security number, as well as the couple’s marriage and divorce certificates, to streamline a future claim.

Then, “it’s really a very seamless process,” Colley said.

What happens to benefits when an ex-spouse dies

When a former spouse dies, the benefit formula changes.

Surviving ex-spouses (and widows) are eligible for up to 100% of the decedent’s benefit, rather than the prior 50% maximum. These are known as “survivors benefits.”

Remarrying after reaching age 60 won’t affect your eligibility for survivors benefits, according to the SSA. Remarrying earlier than that disqualifies eligibility.

Survivors can claim these benefits as early as age 60 — two years earlier than traditional retirement benefits, Colley said. However, such benefits would be lower than if one waited at least until full retirement age, she said.

Social Security enacted this safety net for survivors because women traditionally hadn’t worked outside the home and instead stayed to take care of the children, and therefore had less retirement security in the event of a spouse’s death, Colley said.

“We’re seeing women in divorce today who are of the generation where they just didn’t work their entire life,” she said.

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