Social Security Mailbag: Questions on Spousal Benefits and Federal Pension Offsets

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Have a question about saving for retirement or your personal financial situation? Whatever the question, Barron’s Retirement can try to help. Email [email protected], and we might look to financial pros for answers.

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Q: I’m 63 and have been collecting Social Security disability benefits of about $3,000 a month for almost three years due to a progressive illness. My wife will be 62 in October 2023 and plans to take her Social Security retirement benefits at that time, about $1,300 a month. Let’s say I die at 75. Is she eligible to receive my full benefit or a percentage of my benefit? And will she get less because she took her benefit early?

When you reach your full retirement age, a few months shy of 67, your benefits will automatically convert to retirement benefits, and your monthly check should be essentially unchanged. If you were to die at 75, your wife would be entitled to that full benefit of around $3,000 because it’s higher than her own monthly check. However, she no longer would collect her own benefits of $1,300 a month.

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“As long as she’s full retirement age…she’s going to get 100% of that payment,” said Brett Gersack, senior wealth advisor at financial-planning firm Halbert Hargrove. “The only way that she can get less in this situation is if she passes away before she hits full retirement age. Then, she would get a haircut.”

Indeed, widows or widowers ages 60 and older who have yet to reach full retirement age can get between 71.5% and 99% of their deceased spouse’s monthly benefit, depending on how close they are to full retirement age, according to the Social Security Administration.

If your wife collects her own Social Security benefits at 62, her checks will be 30% lower than if she waited until her full retirement age, which is 67. That could be a mistake if you end up living longer than you expect, according to Brian E. Martin, wealth manager at Merit Financial Advisors.

“If he lived to 80 or longer, then the fact that she claimed benefits so early would have a more detrimental effect because she will be taking benefits at a reduced level,” Martin said. But if you were to die at 75, as you suggested, “then her taking benefits early could be a good bridge” to the time when she receives your full benefit, Martin added.

Q: My husband, a retired postal employee, is 73 and is not entitled to Social Security. Is he eligible to receive a portion of my Social Security benefits?

If you’ve started collecting benefits, then your husband may be eligible for a spousal benefit, but it likely won’t be much, according to Gersack, who said his mother is in a similar situation. She was a federal employee and didn’t pay into Social Security during her career, but her late husband did, and she now gets a portion of his benefits, about $46 a month, Gersack said.

Why such a small amount? It’s called the Government Pension Offset,

If you receive a pension from a government job in which you didn’t pay Social Security taxes, the GPO will offset some or all of your Social Security spousal, widow, or widower benefits. For every $3 you get from your pension each month, the GPO will reduce those Social Security benefits by $2.

If you take your government pension annuity in a lump sum, the SSA will calculate the GPO as if you chose to get monthly pension payments, according to the agency.

Consider this example from the SSA: A retired government worker who didn’t pay into Social Security gets a monthly pension benefit of $600 and is eligible for a $500 spousal benefit from Social Security. Two-thirds of his pension amount, or $400, will be offset by the GPO. Therefore, his spousal benefit will be only $100 a month.

If two-thirds of your government pension is more than that spousal benefit, then that benefit will likely be reduced to zero. In 2020, almost three-quarters of Social Security beneficiaries affected by the GPO had their entire spousal, widower, or widower benefit offset, according to the SSA. For those whose Social Security benefits were partially offset, the average monthly check was for only $186.

Still, those monthly checks can add up over time, which underscores “the importance of really exploring all the different benefits that an individual may be entitled to,” Martin said. “Contact the Social Security Administration to determine what other benefits may be applicable to you, and don’t just assume that what you have is all that’s available.”

The SSA encourages people to use its benefit eligibility screening toolcontact their local SSA officeor call 800-772-1213 with questions.

Write to [email protected]

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