Another provision that may affect the Social Security benefit received by a retiree with a state or local government pension is the Government Pension Offset (GPO). The scope of the Government Pension Offset is limited; it affects only the Social Security benefits that you might receive from your wife or husband’s Social Security record. This key fact cannot not be over-emphasized:
The Government Pension Offset only impacts the Social Security benefits that state and local government/education employees might receive from their spouses’ records, not their own earnings in Social Security covered employment.
Spousal Benefits Explained
For the Social Security covered population, a retiree may receive Social Security benefits equal to (a) the benefits earned from his or her own work record or (b) up to one-half of a spouse’s Social Security benefit, whichever is higher. This latter payment is called the spousal benefit. For example, if Mark’s benefit is $2,000 and wife Sue’s is $800, Sue can potentially receive $1,000 per month, one-half of Mark’s benefit. She is actually receiving her own benefit and the “spousal” benefit of $200. But the couple gets $3,000 per month however it is figured!
The Government Pension Offset
The Government Pension Offset, however, provides for a reduction in Social Security benefits from a spouse’s record of 66.6-cents for every dollar a public employee receives from a state or municipal pension if he or she was not in Social Security at the government job. An example really isn’t needed, because this can all be rephrased in a simple rule. If you have a pension from government work outside of Social Security, you will most likely not receive a Social Security benefit from your husband or wife’s earnings record.
Why doesn’t Social Security just say that instead of taking us through the whole offset calculation? It’s because there are some people who have very small public pensions—only a few hundred dollars a month—from part-time work over a short career. A substitute school teacher might be an example. Offsetting these people’s entire spousal benefit is not SSA’s intention, so a formula is used to minimize the impact of these low value pensions.
Can your spouse get a Social Security benefit off of your SSA record? Absolutely. The GPO doesn’t affect the benefits that anyone else other than you will receive.
The Government Pension Offset applies only to benefits that you receive from your spouse’s record.
Does the Government Pension Offset Affect Survivors Benefits from a Spouse’s Record? Unfortunately, yes. The GPO affects both retirement and survivor benefits from a spouse’s record. So, if a person in noncovered employment is married to a person with a substantial Social Security benefit, the offset will also apply to the potential survivor benefit if the spouse in Social Security dies first. If that benefit is sizable, the GPO may not offset all of the benefit. But the offset will still be substantial and receipt of Social Security benefits as a survivor should not be depended on by a person who has a career outside of Social Security.
Is the Government Pension Offset Fair?
The Government Pension Offset is the law of the land so it’s really not my role to convince anyone that it is a fair provision. According to the SSA Publication 05-10007, the spousal benefit was created to compensate people who raised a family or were otherwise financially dependent on the spouse. Congress did not want full-time government employees who did not pay Social Security taxes to be treated in the same manner as a stay-at-home spouse or other low income American. For this reason, the Government Pension Offset was established in the mid-1970s.
A few observations on fairness. No spousal benefit is ever paid to anyone who earns a median or above Social Security benefit on his or her own record. In fact, few spousal benefits are paid at all these days now that most households are two-income. So even though this benefit is essentially denied to many public employees due to the Government Pension Offset, most people whose full-time career is covered by Social Security are also not getting a spousal benefit – they simply get a monthly check based on their own record of Social Security earnings.
Also, Social Security does not allow so-called “dual entitlement” of both survivor and retirement benefits. If a married couple were both in Social Security during their whole careers and the higher-wage earner dies, the spouse moves up to the full benefit that the deceased was receiving. But she gives up her own earned Social Security retirement benefit. My point: every couple loses when one-half of a couple dies, regardless of their work in or out of Social Security.
How to Plan
If you have a pension from work outside of Social Security, do not plan on receiving a Social Security spousal benefit from your husband or wife’s work record. It is highly likely that your only Social Security retirement benefit will come from your own work record.
It is possible that you will receive a survivor benefit should your spouse pre-decease you, but it is unlikely or, if one is payable, it will be a small amount.
You can obtain excellent information on the Government Pension Offset from Publication 05-10007. It is only two pages and can be found at the link on the sidebar.
My book on the subject of Social Security and government pensions provides an expanded explanation, history, examples and Q&A. It is available at Amazon.com. See the link in the sidebar.