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The Impact of Social Security on Divorced Retirement Income

The Social Security Act, passed in 1935, included benefits for workers but not their spouses. At the time, women who did not work outside of the home could not qualify for Social Security retirement benefits. A sweeping series of amendments enacted in 1939 extended Social Security to spouses and minor children. Wives who had not earned a Social Security retirement benefit or whose retirement benefit was less than 50% of their husband’s qualified for the first time.

Catching up with a changing society, another reform extended Social Security retirement benefits to divorced wives in cases when the divorce happened after a marriage of longer than 20 years. The word "spouse" replaced the word "wife" in the 1970s, allowing husbands to collect retirement benefits on their ex-wives' records.

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