Q&A: The confusing balancing act between government pensions and Social Security benefits

Dear Liz: I am a public school teacher and plan to retire with 25 years of service. I had previously worked and paid into Social Security for about 20 years. My spouse has paid into Social Security for over 30 years. Will I be penalized because I have not paid Social Security taxes while I’ve been teaching? Should my wife die before me, will I get survivor benefits, or will the windfall elimination act take that away? It’s so confusing!

Answer: It is confusing, but you should understand that the rules about windfall elimination (along with a related provision, the government pension offset) are not designed to take away from you a benefit that others get. Rather, the rules are set up so that people who get government pensions — which are typically more generous than Social Security — don’t wind up with significantly more money from Social Security than those who paid into the system their entire working lives.

Here’s how that can happen. Social Security benefits are progressive, which means they’re designed to replace a higher percentage of a lower-earner’s income than that of a higher earner. If you don’t pay into the system for many years — because you’re in a job that provides a government pension instead — your annual earnings for Social Security would be reported as zeros in those years. Social Security is based on your 35 highest-earning years, so all those zeros would make it look like you earned a lower (often much lower) lifetime income than you actually did. Without any adjustments, you would wind up with a bigger check from Social Security than someone who earned the same income in the private sector and paid much more in Social Security taxes. It was that inequity that caused Congress to create the windfall elimination provision several decades ago.

People who earn government pensions also could wind up with significantly more money when a spouse dies. If a couple receives two Social Security checks, the survivor gets the larger of the two when a spouse dies. The household doesn’t continue to receive both checks. Without the government pension offset, someone like you would get both a pension and a full survivor’s check. Again, that could leave you significantly better off than someone who had paid more into the system.

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