Q&A: Social Security windfall elimination provision

Dear Liz: I was referred to an answer you wrote in 2017 explaining Social Security’s windfall elimination provision. It was the clearest explanation I have seen. I receive a government pension and a reduced Social Security check from the provision and am now fine with how it came to be, thanks to your post.

Answer: Many people are understandably upset that their Social Security benefits are reduced when they receive a pension from a job that didn’t pay into the Social Security system. Understanding why this happens may help. Here’s a reprint of the question and answer from 2017:

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 more than 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.

Liz Weston, Certified Financial Planner, is a personal finance columnist for NerdWallet. Questions may be sent to her at 3940 Laurel Canyon, No. 238, Studio City, CA 91604, or by using the “Contact” form at asklizweston.com.

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Comments

  1. Debbie Owens says

    My husband died recently and hadn’t started to collect social security but I have. When he passed I contacted social security and thought I was going to collect my husband’s instead of mine because his was more than mine but SS said I would have to pay back all of what I had already collected and start from scratch and then start to collect my husband’s. I keep wondering is this right or am I getting the run around?