Q&A: The idea here is not to cheat public servants

Dear Liz: Thanks for your column about Social Security claiming strategies. Here’s a further complication you didn’t address. If the surviving spouse is a teacher in many states, access to survivor’s Social Security benefits is further restricted (if not entirely blocked) by a misogynistic, anti-teacher ruling dubbed the windfall elimination provision, which perhaps was a backlash against the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s and 1980s.

Any clarification on the windfall elimination provision’s inconsistent application and its impact on my widow’s fixed income will be greatly appreciated.

Answer: The explanation is actually a lot more prosaic.

The windfall elimination provision and a related measure, the government pension offset, were not designed to rob public servants of benefits other people get. Instead, the provisions were meant to keep those who get government pensions from getting significantly bigger benefits than people in the private sector.

The provision that would reduce and possibly eliminate your spouse’s survivor benefit is actually the government pension offset. The offset, like the windfall elimination provision, applies to people who get pensions from jobs that didn’t pay into the Social Security system. (Some school systems, as well as other state and local government employers, have opted out of Social Security and provide their own pensions instead.)

If both you and your spouse had only Social Security and no government pensions, one of your two Social Security checks would stop at your death. After that, your spouse would get one check — the larger of the two checks the household received — as a survivor benefit.

If the government pension offset didn’t exist, your widow c​ould receive two checks: a survivor benefit equal to your Social Security benefit, plus her pension. She potentially would be getting a lot more from Social Security than those who paid into Social Security their entire working lives.

The windfall elimination provision, meanwhile, applies to people who have government pensions but also worked in jobs that paid into Social Security.

When people don’t pay into the system for several years because they have jobs with government pensions instead, their annual Social Security earnings for those years are reported as zero. Because Social Security is based on ​workers’ 35 highest-earning years, those zeros make it look like they have lower lifetime earnings than they actually did.

That’s a problem because the Social Security system is progressive, replacing more income for lower-earning workers than for higher-earning ones. Without adjustments, people with pensions would look like lower earners than they actually were. They would wind up with bigger Social Security checks than someone who had the same income in a private-sector job that paid in a lot more in Social Security taxes.

These provisions are complicated and hard to explain, which is part of the reason some people jump to the conclusion they’re being denied something others are getting. In reality, the provisions were meant to make the system more fair.

Q&A: Social Security vs. state pension

Dear Liz: I worked enough in private industry to qualify for Social Security benefits, but then worked for the state and did not contribute to Social Security for another 20 years. So, I will have a state pension at my current salary as well as Social Security representing my former salary, which was about one-third of what I’m making now. My question is, would it be of value to retire early and return to private industry for a few years?

Answer: Your Social Security benefit is likely to be reduced because you’re getting a pension from a job that didn’t pay into Social Security. This is known as the windfall elimination provision, and you can learn more about it on the Social Security website.

You can avoid the provision if you had 30 years or more of “substantial earnings” (which varies by year but was at least $22,050 in 2015) from jobs that paid into Social Security.
It probably wouldn’t make much sense to quit a well-paying job with a presumably generous pension to try to boost a much smaller Social Security payout. But a fee-only financial planner could run the numbers for you and explain your various options.

Q&A: Follow up on the Windfall Elimination Provision

Dear Liz: You recently addressed the issue of the Windfall Elimination Provision, which reduces Social Security benefits for people who paid into Social Security but who also get a pension from an employer that does not pay into the system. My wife taught for nearly 40 years. Neither she nor her employer contributed to Social Security. As a result she falls under the WEP. This also, however, affects her spousal benefits under my Social Security record. So, because of the WEP, any spousal benefits she would be entitled to are essentially zeroed out since she receives a pension. If she had never worked (thereby not contributing to Social Security), she would be entitled to her entire spousal benefit. That doesn’t seem reasonable to me.

Answer: What you’re referring to is a different provision, the Government Pension Offset. People who receive a pension from a federal, state or local government job that didn’t pay into Social Security can have their Social Security spousal or survivor benefit wiped out by the GPO. By contrast, the Windfall Elimination Provision typically leaves at least half of the worker’s Social Security benefit intact.

The rationale for the GPO goes like this: Spousal and survivor benefits are considered dependent’s benefits. The law has always required that these benefits be offset dollar for dollar by the amount of the person’s own retirement benefit. So if your wife had earned a $1,000 monthly Social Security benefit based on her own work record but a $500 spousal benefit based on yours, she would not receive both. Her own benefit would completely offset the spousal benefit.

Before the GPO, though, your wife could have received a $1,000 monthly pension from a job that didn’t pay into Social Security plus a spousal or survivor’s benefit from Social Security, leaving her much better off than someone who had paid into the system.

Q&A: Windfall Elimination Provision followup

Dear Liz: In a recent column, I believe you got one aspect of Social Security’s Windfall Elimination Provision wrong. If you’re affected by WEP, in no case can you get more than 90% of your Social Security benefit. It is a sliding scale. With 20 years of earnings under Social Security, you get 40%. It goes up 5% per year to a maximum of 90% at 30 years. I worked 28 years as a paramedic and firefighter, most of the time for agencies that offered a pension instead of paying into Social Security. I also have 22 years of substantial earnings that were covered by Social Security and plan on working eight to 10 more years to get to 90%.

Answer: It’s easy to get confused about how Social Security figures benefits, but rest assured: If you have 30 years of substantial earnings from jobs that paid into Social Security, you will get 100% of your Social Security benefit even if you have a pension from a job that didn’t pay into Social Security.

Here’s what you need to know. Social Security is designed to replace more income for lower-wage workers, because higher-wage workers presumably find it easier to save for retirement. People who get pensions from employers who don’t pay into Social Security, but who also had jobs from employers that did, can look to the Social Security system as though they were long-term low-wage workers even when they’re not. Without the Windfall Elimination Provision, they could get a bigger Social Security check than they would have earned had they paid into the system all along.

To compute our benefits, Social Security separates our average earnings into three amounts and multiplies those amounts by different factors. For a typical worker who turns 62 this year, Social Security would multiply the first $816 of average monthly earnings by 90%, the next $4,101 by 32% and the remainder by 15%.

Those affected by WEP have a different formula, but it affects only that first part of their average earnings — the part where everyone else gets credited for 90%. The WEP formula is, as you note, on a sliding scale. Someone with 20 or fewer years of substantial earnings from jobs that paid into Social Security would see the first $816 multiplied by 40%. Someone with 28 years, by contrast, would have the first $816 multiplied by 80%. Someone with 30 years or more would get the full 90%.

Social Security’s pamphlet on WEP lays this out, and notes that the Windfall Elimination Provision does not apply to anyone with 30 or more years of substantial earnings from jobs that paid into Social Security. You can read more about it here: http://www.ssa.gov/pubs/EN-05-10045.pdf.

Q&A: Pensions and the windfall elimination provision

Dear Liz: As a faculty member who was only recently allowed to participate in our state’s public employees’ retirement system, I will have a very small pension. I’m told that Social Security will then reduce my benefit by up to 50% as a result of the so-called windfall elimination provision. Can you tell me how this is legal?

Answer: Many people affected by Social Security’s windfall elimination provision are outraged that their benefits will be reduced. Before the provision was enacted in 1983, though, people who paid less into the Social Security system wound up getting an outsized benefit.

Here’s why. Social Security is designed to replace more of a worker’s income the less he or she makes, with the understanding that saving for retirement is harder the lower your income.

When you get a pension from an employer who doesn’t pay into the Social Security system, but you also qualify for Social Security benefits from other jobs, your Social Security earnings record can look as if you were a long-term, low-wage worker even when you’re not. Without the windfall elimination provision, you could wind up with a Social Security check that replaces more of your income than you would have received had you only worked in jobs covered by Social Security.

How much your benefit will be reduced depends in part on how many years you worked in those other jobs — the ones that were covered by Social Security. The longer you worked at jobs covered by Social Security, the less the windfall elimination provision affects you, as long as you had “substantial earnings” from those jobs. The amount that’s considered substantial varies by year, ranging from $3,300 in 1974 to $21,750 this year. You’ll experience the maximum 50% reduction if you have 20 or fewer years of substantial earnings. If you have 30 years of such earnings, the provision doesn’t affect you at all.

Will your pension hurt your Social Security benefit?

Dear Liz: Could you please address the issue of Social Security for those with pensions? I understand that if you have a pension, you won’t get 100% of the standard monthly Social Security benefit. I believe that this happens even if you only have a defined contribution account. But I’ve never seen this discussed in news reports. Many people are surprised when I tell them this.

Answer: Perhaps they’re surprised because what you’re saying isn’t true.

Defined contribution plans, such as 401(k)s, don’t affect your Social Security benefit at all. Neither do most pensions. The time that a pension might affect your benefit is if you didn’t pay into Social Security while you were earning the pension.

Here’s how the Social Security website puts it: “A pension based on work that is not covered by Social Security (for example, federal civil service and some state or local government agencies, such as police officers and some teachers) may cause the amount of your Social Security benefit to be reduced.”

The reduction can come under one of two provisions. The first, called government pension offset, applies if you get a government pension not covered by Social Security and are eligible for Social Security benefits as a spouse or survivor. The spousal or survivor benefit may be reduced in that case. You can learn more at http://www.socialsecurity.gov/retire2/gpo.htm.

The second provision is the windfall elimination provision, which may reduce your Social Security or retirement benefit if you receive a pension from a job not covered by Social Security. You can learn more at http://www.socialsecurity.gov/retire2/wep.htm.

These provisions were put into place because some people with a pension from a job that didn’t pay into Social Security were getting more Social Security benefits than the system intended. If they worked mainly in the job with the pension, but also had jobs that paid Social Security taxes, their Social Security benefits were often calculated as if they were long-term, low-wage workers. Since Social Security is designed to replace a larger percentage of earnings for low-paid workers — and a smaller percentage for higher-paid workers — these folks wound up with a bigger benefit than their earnings actually justified.