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How divorce can affect same-sex marriage and retirement benefits

The Social Security Administration recently announced that it had begun processing some of the first claims for retirement benefits in the United States for same-sex couples. This was likely good news for many same-sex couples here in Washington because they can now apply for government benefits as a couple rather than separately. But along with this change comes a significant problem worth noting to our readers.

The thing to consider is how a divorce can affect your benefits in the future. While some couples are blinded by a divorce, others may have seen the signs early on and have been fortunate enough to plan for what's to come. Either way, same-sex couples especially will want to consider how a divorce will affect their benefits now that their future ex-spouse's benefits will be available.

The length of a marriage is the main thing that will be considered, especially when it comes to retirement benefits. If a couple has been married for at least nine months, then a spouse can qualify for survivor benefits. If the couple is married for at least a year, then the spouse can qualify for spousal benefits. However, it's important to point out that if the couple divorces before they have been married for ten years, then the spouse does not qualify for either benefit program. And because of ongoing policy changes within the Social Security Administration, this could present even more complications for same-sex couples down the road.

Many of our readers might be wondering if these policies will be retroactively applied to couples who were once married but divorced before the DOMA decision was made. Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to this and may require the help of a skilled attorney to help sort out an individual's case.

Sources: The Washington Post, "Social Security Administration now processing same-sex marriage benefit claims," Eric Yoder, Aug. 12, 2013    

PBS Newshour, "How Marriage and Divorce Affect Your Social Security Payments," Laurence Kotlikoff, Aug. 19, 2013