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Social Security: collecting spousal benefits after a divorce

When Minnesota couples divorce, getting a fair division of the couple's retirement accounts is often an issue. But retirement savings are not limited to the funds in an IRA or 401(k) account. There is also Social Security, and many people may be surprised to learn that after divorce, a spouse can collect Social Security retirement and disability benefits based on his or her ex-spouse's work history.

There are certain requirements that must be met before you can collect Social Security spousal benefits based on an ex-spouse's history. First, the marriage must have lasted at least ten years. Second, you must be 62 years old or older. Third, you must be unmarried. A remarriage will disqualify you from collecting spousal benefits based on an ex-spouse's account, but if your subsequent marriage ends by death or divorce, the benefits from your first ex-spouse become available again.

Fourth, your ex-spouse must be eligible to collect retirement or disability benefits. If your ex-spouse is eligible for benefits but has not applied for them, you can begin collecting on his or her account once you have been divorced for at least two years.

Finally, the benefit you would be entitled to based on your own work history must be less than the benefit you could collect based on your ex-spouse's history. If you begin collecting the benefits at your full retirement age, the amount you can receive on an ex-spouse's account is one-half the amount of his or her full benefits. If you are eligible for benefits yourself, the Social Security Administration will pay your benefits first, and if the amount you can collect on your ex-spouse's account is greater, they will pay you the additional amount necessary to equal that higher amount.

The ten-year marriage requirement is something to consider if divorce appears to be in your future. If you are contemplating divorce and approaching your tenth anniversary, it may make sense to postpone the divorce until the marriage has lasted ten years, in order to qualify for spousal social security benefits.

Source: Social Security Administration, "Retirement Planner: If You Are Divorced," accessed May 27, 2016

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