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Senior scene

April 14, 2012

Social Security: Divorce doesn't necessarily mean end to ex's Social Security benefits

Here's a quiz for you.

Frank and Joan had been married for 31 years until their divorce in 2007. During the divorce proceedings, Joan signed an agreement relinquishing all rights to benefits on Frank's Social Security record.

This month, both Frank and Joan reached full retirement age. Joan had never worked under Social Security but Frank had worked and paid in his entire working life. Frank was told that his Social Security monthly payment would be $1,600. How much can Joan receive on Frank's record?

That seems like an easy question, doesn't it? After all, if Joan signed a legal paper relinquishing her rights to benefits on Frank's record then she will get nothing, right? But if you said that Joan's Social Security payment would be zero I'm afraid that you're wrong.

Sometimes the laws and legal papers seem to contradict one another. This would be just such a case. The divorce document says one thing but the Social Security law says another. However, in this case the clause the lawyers added to the divorce papers isn't worth the paper that it is written on. Federal law will override any legal paperwork from the lawyers.

In addition, the Social Security law says that because Joan was married to Frank for at least 10 years and is not remarried, she is entitled to benefits on his record.

Joan will receive the same amount on Frank's record that she would if she was still married to him. Since she has reached full retirement age, she will receive one-half of his payment now, and his full payment should Frank pre-decease her.

These payments will not affect what Frank receives, nor will they affect payments to Frank's current wife, if he has remarried.

So if you said that Joan would receive $800 per month give yourself an "A".

Here is another interesting fact about receiving benefits as a divorced spouse _ unlike receiving benefits on a current spouse's record, Frank does not necessarily have to file for his retirement benefits for Joan to collect money on his record.

The divorced spouse of a worker who is not entitled to retirement or disability insurance benefits, but has reached age 62 and is fully insured, can become independently entitled to benefits on the worker's earnings record, as long as: he or she has filed an application for divorced spouse's benefits; is not entitled to a retirement or disability insurance benefit based on his or her own primary insurance amount, which equals or exceeds one-half the worker's primary insurance amount; is age 62 or older; is not now married and was married to the worker for at least 10 years before the date the divorce became final; and has been divorced from the worker for not less than two continuous years.

Now I know this seems like a lot of information to take in all at once. Don't worry, you can find more information about receiving divorced spouse's insurance benefits at

And if you don't find the answers to your questions online, you can always give us a call at (800) 772-1213 or (877) 628-6581. We are happy to discuss your personal situation with you over the phone and we will schedule an appointment with our office if necessary.

tracey L. weaver is district manager of the Oneonta office of the Social Security Administration. 'Senior Scene' columns can be found at

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