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Ask the Expert: Why can't I collect half my ex-spouse's Social Security benefit?

I'm confused about Social Security benefits available to an ex-spouse. My ex and I are both retired and older than 66. When I retired, I was told I could collect half of his benefit or my own benefit, whichever is higher. I took mine, since half of his was less. However, I have friends who say they collect both their own benefit and part of their spouses' benefit, since theirs was the lower amount. Is this correct?

Yes. But you and your married friends have been treated the same way.

You clearly met the requirements to claim a benefit based on your ex-spouse's record: Your marriage lasted at least 10 years, you're both Social Security-eligible, and you haven't remarried. But you can't simultaneously collect a benefit based on your own record and a benefit based on your ex-spouse's record. If you qualify for both, you receive an amount equal to the larger of the two.

The same rule applies to married couples.

For example, let's say your benefit based on your own work is $1,800. When you apply for Social Security at your full retirement age, your benefit based on your ex's record is 50 percent of the amount he collects. (If you were younger when you applied, it would be a smaller percentage.) He collects $2,200, so your spousal benefit is $1,100. The result: You receive your own higher $1,800 benefit.

Let's say your friend's benefit based on her own record is $1,100. She also qualifies for a $1,300 benefit based on her husband's record. Like you, she'll receive the bigger amount. In her case, that's $1,300 a month — her own $1,100 benefit, plus $200 based on her husband's record.

The bottom line

People who qualify for two Social Security benefits receive an amount equal to the bigger benefit.

More information

ssa.gov/planners/retire/divspouse.html

ssa.gov/planners/survivors/ifyou.html

TO ASK THE EXPERT Send questions to Ask the Expert/Act 2, Newsday, 235 Pinelawn Rd., Melville, NY 11747, or email act2@newsday.com. 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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