Q&A: Social Security and government pensions

Dear Liz: When is the “sweet spot” for me to start receiving Social Security benefits? I am retired and collecting two government pensions — mine and my ex-husband’s. I paid into Social Security for 26 years of substantial earnings when I was in the private sector. I do not want to return to work to get to 30 years of substantial earnings in order to avoid the windfall elimination provision reduction. I will reach full retirement age early next year and have a family history of longevity (my parents lived into their 90s). I am paying all of my bills currently but will do more traveling once I am collecting Social Security. Should I wait until 70 to collect? I think I need to live until about 84 to make waiting a good choice. I tried to get this answer from a financial planner at a free seminar and he would not tell me without hiring him for further consultations.

Answer: That’s not surprising. Social Security claiming strategies can be a complex topic, and your situation is more complex than most.

As you know, the windfall elimination provision can reduce Social Security benefits for people receiving pensions from government jobs that didn’t pay into Social Security. The provision doesn’t apply to people who have 30 or more years of “substantial earnings” from jobs that did pay into Social Security. (The amount considered substantial varies by year, but in 2023 it’s $29,700.) Your 26 years of substantial earnings will mitigate, but not eliminate, the provision’s effects.

Social Security has tools that can help you estimate the impact. Start by opening an account with Social Security, if you haven’t already, and getting your earnings record from those 26 years. You’ll then enter each year’s worth of “substantial earnings” into Social Security’s windfall elimination provision calculator to determine what your benefit is likely to be at various ages.

Next, consider using a paid Social Security claiming site, such as Maximize My Social Security or Social Security Solutions, to get recommendations on when to claim rather than using calculators that purport to show a “break even age” for delaying Social Security.

These calculators typically don’t include important factors such as tax rates, rates of return and, for married couples, future survivor benefits. They also don’t really address “longevity risk” — the substantial danger that the longer you live, the more likely you are to run through your savings and wind up short of money.

On the other hand, you have not one but two government pensions that will provide guaranteed income for the rest of your life. If your Social Security benefit is truly “fun money,” rather than the lifeline it serves as for most people, maximizing your benefit may not be your top priority. But get all the information you can about the cost and benefits of claiming at different ages before making your decision.