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What happens to Social Security benefits in a divorce?

Divorce affects what Social Security benefit options you may qualify for and how they're divided between your spouse and you, depending on a number of factors.

If you've been married for at least 10 years and your spouse paid Social Security taxes during that period, you can claim a spousal benefit payment of 50% of what your husband or wife can receive. So if you haven't yet crossed to 10-year mark in your marriage but are close, consider whether you may want to wait until you reach that threshold before divorcing, to benefit from this right. However, if you remarry prior to 60 years of age, you lose all claims to your previous spouse's benefits.

On the other hand, if you have worked for 10 years or more, and paid Social Security taxes, your personal benefit may be higher than your spouse's. You get to choose one or the other, but you do not receive both. If you do have a valid claim to your spouse's Social Security benefits, you will get 100% of it as a survivor if he or she dies before you.

Those who've been married twice and are eligible for benefits can choose the particular spouse's benefits that would pay the most, but cannot receive both Social Security payments. Claiming benefits early can reduce the amount.

These factors play a role in your legal strategy. Your lawyer can negotiate the option that goes into the divorce decree.

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