Depending on their circumstances, divorced Social Security beneficiaries can receive (1) retired-worker benefits, which are based on the individual's own covered earnings history; (2) auxiliary benefits, which are determined by a living or deceased former spouse's covered earnings history; or (3) a combination of both. In other words, divorced spouses may receive Social Security benefits as retired workers, divorced spouses, or surviving divorced spouses. Divorced spouses can also receive widow or widower benefits from a prior marriage that ended with their spouse’s death.
Retired-worker benefits are computed by wage-indexing annual earnings over a person's working life, then calculating the person’s average indexed monthly earnings (AIME) to determine their primary insurance amount (PIA)—the benefit payable at the full retirement age, which currently is 66. Divorced persons with 40 or more quarters of coverage over their work lives are considered fully insured and may receive retired-worker benefits.
Auxiliary benefits are computed for each eligible previous marriage reported by a divorced person. Any person with a previous marriage that ended in divorce is eligible if the ex-spouse was fully insured for Social Security benefits and the marriage lasted at least 10 years. A person with a previous marriage that ended with the death of their spouse (making the spouse a widow or widower) is also eligible if the deceased spouse was fully insured. Auxiliary benefits are based on the earnings history of the ex-spouse, deceased ex-spouse, or deceased spouse from each marriage. If an ex-spouse is alive when the other spouse claims Social Security benefits on the ex-spouse’s earnings record, the auxiliary benefit (also known as divorced-spouse benefit) is effectively equal to one-half of the ex-spouse's PIA. If an ex-spouse is deceased when a spouse claims benefits, the auxiliary benefit (also known as a surviving-divorced-spouse benefit) is effectively equal to the deceased ex-spouse's full PIA. Likewise, for a marriage that ended with the death of a spouse, the auxiliary benefit (also known as a widow benefit) is effectively equal to the deceased spouse's full PIA.
After computing an auxiliary benefit for each eligible marriage, the Social Security Administration (SSA) selects the highest auxiliary benefit and compares it with the divorced spouse's own retired-worker benefit. If the divorced spouse is not entitled to a retired-worker benefit, the divorced spouse receives the full auxiliary benefit as a divorced spouse, surviving divorced spouse, or widow or widower beneficiary. If the divorced spouse is entitled to a retired-worker benefit that is less than the auxiliary benefit, the divorced spouse is "dually entitled" and SSA supplements the divorced spouse’s retired-worker benefit with the difference between the divorced spouse’s retired-worker benefit and the full auxiliary benefit to which the divorced spouse would be entitled. Finally, if the divorced spouse is entitled to a retired-worker benefit that exceeds the auxiliary benefit, the divorced spouse receives only the retired-worker benefit.
Thus, a divorced spouse's Social Security retirement benefit depends not only on the divorced spouse’s own earnings history, but also to a large extent on the divorced spouse’s marital history and the earnings histories of any previous spouses. A divorced spouse with multiple marriages could receive an auxiliary benefit from any of the former spouses. At retirement a divorced spouse may receive a divorced spouse benefit, a surviving divorced spouse benefit, or a widow or widower benefit from Social Security. In cases where none of the divorced spouse’s marriages ended with the death of the other spouse (making the divorced spouse a widow or widower) or in divorce after 10 years, a divorced spouse will be ineligible for any auxiliary benefits.
Divorce can also affect Social Security disability benefits paid under the two Social Security disability programs—SSI and SSDI. Some persons are eligible for benefits under both programs.
The Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program makes cash assistance payments to aged, blind, and disabled persons (including children) who have limited income and resources. The federal government funds SSI from general tax revenues. Many states pay a supplemental benefit to persons in addition to their federal benefits. Some of these states made arrangements with the federal government to combine their supplemental payment with the federal SSI payment into one monthly check to the beneficiary. Other states manage their own programs and make their payments separately. Because SSI is a need-based benefit, eligibility for SSI and the amount of any monthly SSI payment is calculated on the amount of resources available to the SSI claimant—including a spouse’s income and contribution toward living expenses during marriage. When an SSI claimant divorces, the other spouse’s resources may no longer be available, and SSI benefits may increase. But the Social Security Administration (SSA) will consider any spousal support or alimony a divorced spouse receives as part of the spouse’s countable, unearned income toward the SSI limit.
The Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program provides benefits to disabled or blind persons who are insured by workers’ contributions to the Social Security trust fund. These contributions are based on a worker’s earnings (or the earnings of a claimant’s spouse or parents) as required by the Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA). A worker’s dependents may also be eligible for benefits from the worker’s earnings record. Thus, the spouse of a worker who made contributions to the Social Security trust fund may be eligible for disability payments from the SSDI program. And if a spouse who was receiving SSDI benefits through their spouse gets divorced, the SSDI payments to the divorced spouse will continue unless (1) the divorced spouse was married for ten years or less; (2) the divorced spouse gets remarried; or (3) the divorced spouse becomes entitled to a larger Social Security benefit under the divorced spouse’s own work record.