Back to top


Social Security After Death or Divorce - December 2011
Richard Scrivanich - Partner

Dear Client:

You may be familiar with the basic math of Social Security benefits. For people born from 1943 through 1954, Social Security’s “full retirement age” is 66 years old. You can start to receive benefits as early as age 62, but early retirees permanently receive reduced benefits. You can defer Social Security retirement benefits up to age 70; the longer you wait, the larger each check will be for the rest of your life.

Spouses and ex-spouses may receive Social Security benefits on their own work record or on their spouse’s record. Generally, they will receive the greater of the two benefits.

Support for spouses The basic spousal benefit is one half of the other spouses retirement benefit.

Example 1: Molly Fox is eligible for $800 a month on her own work record. As a spouse, however, she is eligible for $1,000 a month from Social Security (half of her husband, Nick’s full benefit). Molly will receive the larger amount – the $1,000 monthly spousal benefit.

To get this spousal benefit, however, the lower-earning spouse must wait for benefits until full retirement age.

Example 2: Assume that Nick Fox’s benefit at full retirement age is $2,000 a month. For Molly to get a $1,000 spousal benefit, she must wait until her full retirement age to start benefits. Molly can start as early as age 62, but the earlier Molly starts to collect benefits, the smaller her checks will be. If Molly turns 62 this year and starts to receive Social Security checks right away, each check would be 75% of the amount she’d get at age 66. For every month after age 62 that she waits to start, her checks will be slightly higher percentage of her full retirement benefit.

As mentioned, waiting until age 70 generates a larger check. If Nick Fox waits beyond 66, he will increase his monthly check by 8% for each year he delays. However, Nick’s waiting will not increase Molly’s spousal benefit. Therefore, someone who is certain to collect a spousal benefit (generally, someone who earned much less than his or her spouse) may want to start benefits no later than full retirement age.

Survivor’s benefits Married couples who have reached the age of eligibility may receive two Social Security checks each month. After one spouse dies, however, the surviving spouse can receive no more than one check. Again, the survivor will receive the higher of the two benefits. A surviving spouse who has reached full retirement age can collect the benefit that the deceased spouse would have received. A surviving spouse can start to receive survivor’s benefits as early as age 60 (50 if disabled) but starting before full retirement age would produce smaller monthly checks. A surviving spouse who starts benefits at 60 would receive 71.5% of the full retirement benefit; he or she will get a slightly higher amount for each month after age 60 that benefits begin.

Example 3: Assume when Nick and Molly Fox are in their 70s that Nick will receive $2,600 a month from Social Security, and Molly will receive $1,300: a 50% spousal benefit. If Nick dies, Molly would start to receive Nick’s $2,600 monthly benefit. Going forward, any cost of living adjustments for Molly would be based on that $2,600 monthly benefit.

As previously noted, Nick’s deferment of benefits beyond full retirement age does not increase Molly’s spousal lifetime benefit. However, Nick’s deferment of benefits does increase his own monthly checks and also increases Molly’s survivor benefit if Nick dies first. In example 3, if Nick had been receiving $3,000 a month, as a result of delaying his own retirement benefit, Molly’s survivor benefit would have been $3,000 a month. Thus, a higher-earning spouse might delay Social Security as long as possible, in order to provide a greater survivor’s benefit.

For a surviving spouse to receive a survivor’s benefit from Social Security, he or she must have been married for at least nine months before the death. There are several exceptions to this nine-month rule. For example, if a couple is married and one spouse dies in an auto accident shortly after the ceremony, the spouse can receive a survivor’s benefit.

The 10-year hitch
After a divorce, an ex-spouse also can receive spousal and survivor’s benefits. Generally, the amounts involved are the same.
Example 4: Before marrying Molly, Nick Fox was married to Paula. Then they divorced. Paula can receive a benefit as large as half of Nick’s while he is alive, and as large as Nick’s full benefit if he dies before her. Paula generally must meet the same age requirements as Molly, who was married to Nick at his death.

In order to qualify for spousal or survivor’s benefits, an ex-spouse usually must have been married to the former spouse for at least 10 years and must be unmarried to receive the benefits. There is no limit to the number of ex-spouses who can receive benefits on one person’s Social Security record; benefits paid to an ex-spouse will not reduce the amount paid to the current spouse or to the surviving spouse.

If you have any questions regarding the above discussed topic or any other tax matter, please feel free to give me a call at (562) 698-9891.