Can You Lose Your Social Security In a Divorce?

Can You Lose Your Social Security In a Divorce?

It's rare but it happens. 


Social Security benefits are a lifeline to many senior citizens without a reliable income. While in principle they are not intended to be a substitute for saving over the course of one’s career, in practice they frequently are, and many seniors depend on the stability and guaranteed nature of the payouts. Unfortunately, a question that is sometimes raised regards divorce, and whether Social Security payments can be re-assigned in divorce settlements. The question is sometimes raised because spousal benefits under Social Security are unclear, and divorce and remarriage can affect how much Social Security a person receives.

In general, a person’s individual Social Security payment is not affected by divorce. While a spouse can claim a higher rate of Social Security than they would earn on their own, up to fifty percent of their spouse’s payment, the extra benefits are not taken away from one person in the relationship and given to the other, but rather added at the government’s expense.


Per the rules of the spousal benefit, if a married couple stayed together for at least ten years before their divorce, the lower-earning spouse can qualify for additional Social Security benefits based on the income of the higher-earning spouse. If the lower-earning spouse does not remarry, he or she can continue to claim the spousal benefit; if that person does, though, they would need to recalculate their new spousal benefit based on the income of the new spouse.

When spousal payments were created, they were intended to cover expenses for stay-at-home wives, who were more likely to be put into difficult financial circumstances by the death of their husbands than vice-versa. In the twenty-first century, the gap between men’s and women’s earnings, while still prevalent on a macro-scale, tends to be smaller between working couples, meaning that the spousal benefit is less important. Even so, they continue to be paid out; the largest possible benefit is one-half of a spouse’s payment at full retirement age (FRA), or around $1,500. This is also near the average Social Security payment.

None of this precludes certain rare circumstances in which a person might be obliged by a court to give up Social Security payments as a form of alimony, as a person can be compelled to turn over a part or whole of a savings account or a pension. However, these cases are generally rare.

Trevor Filseth is a current and foreign affairs writer for The National Interest.

Image: Reuters