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Ask the Expert: Social Security based on ex-spouse's earnings

I retired and went on Social Security disability 10 years ago. I was told I couldn't collect on my ex-husband's earnings. I want to know why. My benefits are rather low. I'm sure that since he retired as a lieutenant from the New York City Police Department, his benefit is much more. We were married over 10 years. I was also told that should I learn of his death, I must notify Social Security immediately because my benefit would greatly increase.

There are several reasons you may currently be ineligible for a benefit based on your ex-husband's record, but qualify for a survivor benefit after his death.

If your marriage lasted at least 10 years and you're currently unmarried, you meet two requirements for collecting Social Security based on an ex-spouse's record during his/her lifetime. But there are three additional conditions:

You must be at least 62 years old. Your ex must also be at least 62 years old. Historically, most police officers retire from the NYPD after 20 years of service, so he may be younger. And your benefit based on his record must be greater than the one you're entitled to collect based on your own.

Depending on your age when you apply for it, your benefit based on your ex's earnings would be as little as 32.5 percent or as much as 50 percent of the amount he's entitled to receive at his full retirement age. In your case, that may be less money than your disability benefit.

Your potential benefit as his survivor is substantially more. It's 100 percent of the Social Security benefit he was collecting or entitled to receive when he died.

The bottom line

Even if you're ineligible for a benefit based on your ex's earnings during his lifetime, you may collect one as his survivor.

More information

TO ASK THE EXPERT Send questions to Ask the Expert/Act 2, Newsday, 235 Pinelawn Rd., Melville, NY 11747, or email Include your name, address and phone numbers. Questions can be answered only in this column. Advice is offered as general guidance. Check with your own consultants for your specific needs.

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