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Social Security and the Timing of Divorce

Aug 2009
Working Paper
08-057
By  Gopi Shah Goda, John Shoven, Sita Slavov
The Social Security system contains many features designed to provide an adequate retirement income for families, rather than just individual retired workers. The most important of these features is the spousal benefit, under which secondary earners are entitled to receive a monthly payment of 50 percent of their spouse’s monthly Social Security benefit. Secondary earners may also elect to receive benefits based on their own earnings records if they are higher than the spousal benefit; historically, however, the spousal benefit provided a large source of benefits for non-working spouses in one-earner couples. Of course, the existence of a spousal benefit raises the questions about what happens in the event of divorce. Currently, an individual may not claim a spousal benefit based on an ex-spouse’s earnings record if the marriage lasted less than 10 years. If the marriage lasted 10 years or more, however, the divorced spouse is entitled to the full spousal benefit in retirement.