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Understanding spousal and survivor Social Security benefits

Increasingly, people are choosing to divorce in their senior years rather than live what may be decades more in unhappy, loveless marriages. For women who left the workforce to raise children and perhaps never resumed full-time careers, the prospect of how they're going to get by financially on their own -- even with spousal support -- may be frightening. What happens if their ex-spouse dies and the spousal support ends?

There's a potential source of income to which many people don't realize they may be entitled based on their spouse's work records. These can be particularly valuable for spouses who aren't eligible for a significant amount of Social Security benefits based on their own income over the years.

A divorced person can receive spousal benefits if:

  • They were married for at least a decade.
  • They are at least 62 years old.
  • They have not remarried.
  • The spousal benefit is greater than the amount to which they'd otherwise be entitled based on their own work history.

Typically, if you choose to wait until your full retirement age to begin receiving spousal benefits, you're entitled to 50 percent of your former spouse's full Social Security retirement or disability benefits.

If your former spouse passes away, you may then be entitled to Social Security survivor benefits. Unlike spousal benefits, survivor benefits are the full amount of your former spouse's benefits.

To be eligible for these, you must also have been married for at least a decade. However, you only need to be 60, as opposed to 62, to qualify. Further, you can collect survivor benefits even if you've remarried (as long as you were at least 60 when you tied the knot again) or if your spouse remarried.

If you are in the process of what is often given the unfortunate moniker "gray divorce," it's essential to understand what Social Security benefits you may be eligible for, both based on your work history and your spouse's, and what eligibility requirements you need to meet. You may want to consult with a financial professional in addition to your family law attorney to make sure that you maximize your future income as you enter the next phase of your life.

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