How Does Social Security Work for Divorced Couples in Washington State?

How Does Social Security Work for Divorced Couples in Washington State?

Despite being divorced, you may still be able to collect social security benefits through your ex-spouse. Even if you went through a high-conflict divorce or are not on good terms with your ex-spouse currently, they cannot stop you from collecting these benefits if you are eligible. Likewise, your ex-spouse does not need to permit you to apply for social security benefits or have previously completed an application themselves. 

You will need some information about your spouse to complete your application (i.e., their social security number). Though several criteria and circumstances can impact eligibility, if you meet all of them, don’t do anything to disqualify yourself, and apply for social security benefits online, on the phone, or in person, you may be able to collect social security benefits after divorce based on your ex-spouse’s work record. Here is what you need to know.

What are the criteria for collecting social security benefits after divorce?

To be eligible for benefits through your ex-spouse, you must meet several criteria. One of the most important is the length of your marriage. Specifically, your marriage with your ex-spouse must have lasted 10 years or more. You would automatically be ineligible if your marriage lasted less than 10 years. 

Additional requirements are that your ex-spouse is 62 (the minimum age for collecting benefits) or older and you are unmarried. If you meet these criteria, and your ex-spouse is eligible for social security benefits, you will likely be eligible to collect benefits, too.

Circumstances such as remarriage, death, and changes to your work record can, however, impact your eligibility. Though you must meet these initial criteria, you should also ensure that your life circumstances do not render you ineligible.

How do remarriage and death impact benefits after divorce?

Like many divorced individuals, you may be interested in getting remarried following your divorce. However, if you intend to collect social security benefits based on your ex-spouse’s work record, you may want to think twice about doing so. 

That said, if your ex-spouse remarries, you will still be eligible for benefits so long as you remain unmarried. But if your ex-spouse is alive and you remarry, your benefits will likely be paused, even if you have already begun collecting social security through your ex-spouse. If your new spouse dies or your new marriage ends — such as through annulment or divorce — you may be able to start receiving benefits again (through either your first or second marriage).

If your ex-spouse dies, you may be eligible for survivors benefits. Divorced widows or widowers continue to qualify for survivors benefits, just as a widow or widower would. If your marriage was at least 10 years, you are 60 or older, and you are unmarried, you are eligible. However, if you remarried before their death, you will still be unable to collect. 

Collecting benefits while remarried is generally only possible should your ex-spouse die before you remarry. To qualify for social security under these circumstances, you must still be at least 60 when you remarry to receive social security benefits from your ex-spouse.

How does your work record impact benefits after divorce?

If you continue to work after your divorce and your average lifetime earnings are less than your spouse’s, you may worry that your benefits will be less than they would have been had you stayed married. However, this fear is usually unwarranted. If the benefits you would receive due to your employment are less than those you would receive according to your ex-spouse’s employment, you would still be eligible based on your ex-spouse’s work.

Generally, you can apply for your initial social security benefits based on your work record and average lifetime earnings. Suppose, for example, you are planning to apply for benefits as an ex-spouse, and that amount is higher than your total. In that case, the Social Security Administration would also pay you the difference between your benefits and those you are eligible for as an ex-spouse.

If your average lifetime earnings are higher than your ex-spouse’s and the amount you receive through social security is higher than the amount you would receive as an ex-spouse, you will not be paid benefits as an ex-spouse. You will only be able to collect benefits as an ex-spouse if your benefits as an individual are not higher than your ex-spouse’s.

When and how much can you collect?

If you divorced earlier in your lifetime, you may be waiting years, even decades, to collect your ex’s social security benefits. But as long as you divorced at least two years prior, you can collect benefits beginning at age 62, even if your ex-spouse has not yet applied for their social security benefits. 

If your ex-spouse is alive, the earliest you can collect is 62, or the minimum retirement age for receiving social security benefits. When you do so, you can receive a percentage of your ex’s benefit amount, generally around 32.5%, if you meet all the other criteria.

However, if you wait until age 67 (social security’s full retirement age), you will be eligible for 50% of your ex-spouse’s entitled amount if you meet all the other criteria. If your ex-spouse has died and you are 67 or older, you will be eligible for 100% of that amount if you meet all the other criteria.

Discuss your social security benefits in divorce with a Seattle family law attorney.

If you meet the criteria discussed above, you can typically begin collecting social security benefits after divorce and start doing so as early as age 62. Your ex-spouse cannot prevent you from applying for or collecting these benefits, so you should take full advantage of any eligibility you may have. Though your divorce may have been stressful or time-consuming, collecting social security benefits from your ex-spouse need not be. 

At Elise Buie Family Law, our team of experienced Washington state family law attorneys recognizes how confusing social security rules for ex-spouses can seem. Our divorce lawyers have decades of cumulative experience helping our clients understand what social security benefits they may be entitled to and guiding them through the process. If you would like one of our Washington state divorce lawyers to evaluate your eligibility for social security benefits after divorce, contact our Seattle office today


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