Alimony & Social Security Benefits

Instructor: Kenneth Poortvliet

Kenneth has a JD, practiced law for over 10 years, and has taught criminal justice courses as a full-time instructor.

Income and payment obligations affect both alimony and Social Security benefits. In this lesson, we will explore how alimony and Social Security impact how each works.

Retirement and Divorce

Ty stared in disbelief at his Social Security check. This was his first check after he started receiving his alimony payments, and his benefit went down almost as much as the amount of his alimony check. Earlier he had looked online, and the government website said that alimony payments wouldn't affect his benefits. Is this right? Or did they mess up?

Alimony

Alimony is money paid by one spouse to another after a separation and then a divorce. The idea of alimony is to help stem the financial inequity of a divorce. If both parties bring in an equal amount of money, then alimony typically won't be awarded. However, if there is income disparity, then the party making more during the marriage is the supporting spouse, and the other is the supported spouse.

These are the factors the law looks at to determine alimony:

  • The earnings of both spouses
  • Their standard of living during the marriage
  • Whether one spouse supported the other during his/her education
  • The length of the marriage
  • The age, physical condition, emotional state, and financial condition of the former spouses
  • The educational or training need of the lesser earning spouse

Divorce happens at all stages of lives, including during retirement. This brings up many questions about how the law is going to consider alimony and Social Security.

Social Security

Social Security is a government program designed to provide basic needs to people who are retired or disabled. Benefits are also paid for other reasons such as the death of a parent or unemployment. Unlike welfare programs, which are based solely on the needs of the recipient, Social Security is typically based on contributions made by each person during their wage earning years. The following chart defines and explains three types of Social Security benefits that most Americans will use.

Social Security And Alimony

Program Basis for Benefit How Benefits Affects Alimony How Alimony Affects Benefit
Social Security
Retirement (SS)
Contributions made
by recipient over lifetime
Is considered income when calculating alimony for payer and receiver of alimony Alimony not considered when calculating benefit as it is an entitlement.
Supplemental Security
Income (SSI)
Needs-based. Typically for
recipients who contributed none or little.
SSI benefits for receiver of alimony will count as income for determining alimony payment. Alimony payments will count as income when Social Security office calculates SSI payment.
Social Security
Disability Income (SSDI)
Contribution based, but also needs as must be disabled. Courts will consider SSDI for determining alimony received and paid. Alimony not considered when calculating benefit as it is an entitlement.

As you can see, the majority of Social Security benefits are contribution based, meaning that over the years, the wage earner contributes a portion of their pay to the Social Security program. As such, this is an entitlement and you can not be denied payment for any reason. The entitlement aspect means that no matter how much income you have, if you are disabled and paid into the system, you can't be denied the payments.

How Social Security Retirement Income Works

Social Security retirement benefits impact alimony when paying and receiving alimony. If you are a supporting or supported spouse then the amount of Social Security retirement income will be factored in when calculating the alimony payment.

For example, Supporting Sal is paying Dependent Debi's alimony. Both are retired and receiving Social Security retirement payments. The court considered Supporting Sal's Social Security retirement payment as having more ability to pay (which is a factor for alimony). The court also considered Dependent Debi's Social Security payments as income for her which reduces her need (also a factor for alimony).

How Security Supplemental Income Works

If Dependent Debi never paid into the system, then she would qualify for SSI based on her need and her non-contributor status. This would still count as income for alimony determination.

So what if Supporting Sal was getting SSI because he didn't pay into the system and has no or little other income? It would be highly unlikely that a court would determine Supporting Sal has the ability to pay alimony, but if they did, his SSI income would be counted as regular income.

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