Q&A: Social Security and government pensions

Dear Liz: You recently mentioned the windfall elimination provision that affects pensions from jobs that don’t pay into Social Security. I’m wondering what those jobs are. Are they just part of the gig economy, or is there some other category of jobs that don’t pay into Social Security?

Answer:
Gig economy jobs are supposed to pay into Social Security, just like the vast majority of other occupations. People with gig jobs are often considered to be self-employed, so instead of paying just 6.2% of their gross wages into Social Security like most workers, they also pay the employer’s 6.2%, for a total of 12.4% of their earnings.

Some state and local governments have their own pension systems that don’t require workers to pay into Social Security. People who get pensions from those systems and who also qualify for Social Security benefits from other jobs can be affected by the windfall elimination provision, which can reduce their Social Security benefit. They also can be affected by the government pension offset, which can reduce or even eliminate spousal and survivor benefits from Social Security. Here’s an example:

Dear Liz: I am 59, retired, and receive a pension of approximately $150,000 a year. My husband receives a small pension, about $1,000 a month, and Social Security disability due to a diagnosis of Stage 4 lung cancer. I am the sole financial support of my 88-year-old destitute mother, who requires care that costs approximately $5,000 a month. I retired earlier than anticipated to care for my ailing mother and husband.

Although I worked many years where I paid into Social Security, I knew I would receive only about half of my Social Security check due to the windfall elimination provision that affects pensions received from jobs that didn’t pay into Social Security. What I didn’t know is that when my husband passes, I will receive no survivor benefits from his 41-plus years of paying into the system.

Our entire retirement planning was based on his Social Security combined with my pension. He’s just a few months from passing, and I will not be receiving anything, which will immediately put me in an untenable financial position. How is it that after 30 years of marriage I will receive nothing because I have a pension? This just doesn’t seem right. Do I have any options?

Answer: Your situation shows why it’s so important to get sound advice about Social Security before retiring because many people don’t understand the basics of how benefits work.

Even if you didn’t have a pension, for example, your income would have dropped at your husband’s death. When one spouse dies, one of the couple’s two Social Security benefits goes away and the survivor gets the larger of the two checks the couple received.

Your pension is much, much larger than the maximum you could have received from Social Security in any case. If you can’t get by without your husband’s benefit, consider ways to reduce your expenses. Because your mother is destitute, she may be eligible for Medicaid, the government healthcare program for the poor. Unlike Medicare, Medicaid pays the costs of nursing home and other custodial care expenses. Contact your state Medicaid office for details.

Q&A: Lump sum or annuity?

Dear Liz: You recently answered a question about whether to take a lump sum or an annuity payout from a pension. I think you need to be more cautious about making a blanket statement about the payout being the only viable option. There are other reasons for taking the lump sum, such as the pension fund’s stability. My mother’s friend lost her entire pension when Bethlehem Steel went bankrupt. Also, I like the idea of being able to access the lump sum in the case of a catastrophic need (call me a control freak!).

Answer: You certainly can access more of your money with a lump sum, but that’s a double-edged sword. You could withdraw too much too fast and run out of money. You could lose money to bad markets, bad investments, bad decisions and fraud. Even if you’re making good financial decisions now, that may not always be the case as our cognitive abilities tend to decline with age.

The column you’re referencing didn’t say that an annuity is the only viable option, however. In that particular case, the annuity option came with retiree health insurance while the lump sum option did not. It would be pretty hard to top guaranteed income for life plus medical benefits, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

A lump sum could be a better option if the pension is particularly generous and the pension fund isn’t solvent. Your mother’s friend’s pension, for example, was covered by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., so she didn’t lose the whole thing when Bethlehem Steel went under. Workers there lost part of what was promised them because their pensions were larger than the amount covered by the PBGC.

Q&A: Pensions and Social Security benefits

Dear Liz: My situation is similar to the former teacher who wrote about a pension impacting Social Security benefits. I started Social Security at 62. My wife’s government pension is from a job that didn’t pay into Social Security. I’ll receive her pension if she should die before I do. If this occurs, how will my Social Security be impacted?

Answer: It won’t, because your situation is actually the reverse of the former teacher’s.

You paid a portion of each paycheck, currently 6.2%, into the Social Security system. The teacher (and your wife) did not, so their benefits are affected by rules designed to prevent people who didn’t pay into Social Security from getting more than those who did.

Q&A: What to consider before taking a lump sum

Dear Liz: I had a pension from a previous employer that was going to pay me $759 per month at 65. They offered me a lump-sum buyout about five years ago of around $65,000. I ran the numbers and decided that was definitely not enough money and declined.

Then last year they upped the offer and the new lump sum amount was $125,000. I ran the numbers again and this time decided to grab the money and roll it into an IRA. I’m 63 and plan to retire at 70. I can hopefully grow that $125,000 to $250,000 by that time, which would give me that much more to live on, plus it gives me more discretion on using that money than just getting the monthly payment the pension would have paid me.

After reading one of your latest columns, I am now questioning whether I made the right decision to take the lump sum.

Answer: There are a number of good reasons for opting for a lump sum versus an annuity. For example, people with large pensions may not be fully protected by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. if their pension fund fails. Others may need more flexibility than an annuity offers.
But a pension is typically money that’s guaranteed for life, in good markets and bad. If you’re choosing the lump sum just because you think you can earn better returns, you need to consider how you’ll protect yourself and your spouse from fraud, bad decisions and bad markets.

Bull markets can lull people into thinking they’re good investors, but markets can go down and stay down for extended periods. That poses a special risk to retirees, who are at increased risk of running out of money when they draw from a shrinking pool of investments. Even a short bear market can cause problems, while an extended one can be disastrous.

You’ll also want to consider how you’ll manage when your cognitive abilities begin to decline. Our financial decision-making abilities peak in our 50s, but our confidence in our abilities tends to remain high even as our cognition slips. That can lead to bad investment decisions and increased vulnerability to fraud.

Finally, consider your spouse. If you die first, will your spouse be comfortable managing these investments? If not, is there someone in place who can help?

A fee-only financial planner could discuss these issues with you and help you create a plan to deal with them.

Q&A: Pension: to lump or not to lump

Dear Liz: I’m 67 and I’m going to retire later this year. My wife is already retired, and our kids are grown and on their own. I have a 401(k) that I’ve contributed to for most of my working years, and a small traditional IRA. I also have a grandfathered pension plan through my employer. I’m leaning toward taking the pension benefits as a lump sum and rolling it directly to either my 401(k), which my company allows, or my IRA. Would you recommend using the 401(k) to receive the pension rollover? Or would the IRA be the better choice?

Answer: Before you decide where to put the lump sum, please reconsider taking a lump sum in the first place.

Pensions are normally taken as a stream of monthly payments that last for the rest of your lives. (You may be offered a “single life only” option that ends when you die, but that could leave your wife without enough to live on, so the “joint and survivor” option is typically better.) You can’t outlive this money, fraudsters can’t steal it and you won’t lose it to bad markets or bad investment decisions. Most pensions are protected by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., so even if the plan goes broke, your payments will continue.

Contrast that with the lump sum. Theoretically, you may be able to invest the money and get a better return than what you would get from the annuity option (the monthly payments). But that’s far from guaranteed, and one misstep could leave you far worse off.

There are a few situations where taking a lump sum may be smart. If the pension plan is woefully underfunded, and your benefit would not be entirely protected by the PBGC, you could take the lump sum and either invest it or buy an immediate annuity that would replicate those guaranteed monthly payments.

Q&A: A surprise pension creates investment concerns

Dear Liz: Before my husband died, I encouraged him to find out if he had a pension. He worked for his company for more than 10 years and was vested, but he didn’t think he qualified. A few months after he died, I found an unopened letter stating he would receive a pension after he reached his retirement date. I contacted the benefit plan service center and submitted the required documents. I now have two options for receiving the money as his beneficiary: a lump sum or a single-life annuity that would pay a monthly benefit for my lifetime only. The lump sum could be rolled over into an eligible employer plan or traditional IRA, neither of which I have, or paid directly to me, in which case the whole amount is taxable. I am 65 and my only income is his Social Security survivor benefit and a small pension from my company when I retired. So what is the best thing for me to do?

Answer: Thank goodness you found that letter. It’s unfortunate your husband didn’t understand that “vested” meant qualified to receive a pension.

You don’t have to have an employer plan or an existing IRA to keep the lump sum from being taxed right away. You can open an IRA for the sole purpose of receiving the rollover. A bank or brokerage can help you set this up.

Any withdrawals would be taxed, but you wouldn’t be required to start taking withdrawals until you turn 70½. Even then, you would be required to withdraw only a small portion each year (a little less than 4% to start). You can always take more if you want.

Your income is low enough that taxes shouldn’t be driving your decision. Instead, consider whether you’d rather be able to tap the money at will or have more guaranteed income for the rest of your life.

If you don’t have other savings, you may want to have this pool of money standing by to use for emergencies and other spending. On the other hand, an annuity is money that you don’t have to manage and that you can’t outlive or lose to fraud, bad investments or bad decisions. If you have enough emergency savings, adding more guaranteed income could help you live a bit more comfortably.

Q&A: Triggering the windfall elimination provision

Dear Liz: After working and paying into Social Security for more than 40 years, I took a city job at age 60. This job does not pay into Social Security and will afford me a small pension upon retirement in a few years (I’m now 64). Will this pension amount be deducted from my Social Security payments?

Answer: Normally, people who get pensions from jobs that didn’t pay into Social Security face the “windfall elimination provision,” which can reduce any Social Security benefits they may have earned. If, however, you have 30 or more years of “substantial earnings” from a job that paid into Social Security, then this provision does not apply. The amount that counts as “substantial earnings” varies by year; in 2019, it’s $24,675.

Q&A: Pension payout planning

Dear Liz: My husband and I each receive a pension from the companies where we worked. If my husband dies first, will his company continue to pay me his pension and vice versa?

Answer: That depends on how you chose to receive your benefits. Typically people are offered a choice of payouts: a “single life” option that ends at the pensioner’s death, and “joint and survivor” options that continue payments after the pensioner dies. A 50% joint and survivor option would pay half the monthly amount after the pensioner’s death, while a 100% option would continue the payments without reduction.

The option that continues payments without reduction, however, often offers the smallest monthly payment to start. The “single life” option pays the largest monthly amount, but the fact that the payments end at the first death can leave the survivor in a bad way.

Q&A: Rules about a dead ex’s pension

Dear Liz: My ex-spouse passed away recently. She had a pension, and I got 25% of the monthly amount (we had a Qualified Domestic Relations Order to divide the pension). I am now the survivor, but I still get the same amount every month. Shouldn’t I be getting what she received?

Answer: Pensions for survivors don’t always increase when the primary worker dies, and sometimes they go away entirely.

That makes them different from Social Security, where a surviving spouse would get the larger of the two checks a couple received. A qualifying divorced spouse may also qualify to get a Social Security check equal to what the deceased was getting.

What happens to the pension probably depends on the details of your QDRO. Pension companies don’t always give survivors accurate information, so check with your lawyer to see what is supposed to happen according to your agreement.

Q&A: A surviving spouse gets a pension surprise

Dear Liz: I have a question about my late husband’s pension. He was with a company for 25 years and retired early with a defined benefit pension of about $3,700 per month. When he died four years ago, the pension stopped. The company said it was a “single life” pension, but when I tried to get records proving that, they said they had no records. Do you think I have any recourse to petition for some kind of pension? Should I find a lawyer and if so, what kind of lawyer handles this type of thing?

Answer: Traditional pensions typically give workers two options: a single life annuity, whose payments are higher but cease when the recipient dies, or a joint-and-survivor annuity that continues for a surviving spouse’s lifetime. When someone is married, the default option is supposed to be the joint-and-survivor annuity unless the spouse signs a waiver giving up rights to lifetime income. If the company can’t or won’t provide proof of such a waiver, then you’d be smart to get legal help to pursue the issue.

You may be able to get free legal assistance through the U.S. Administration on Aging’s Pension Counseling and Information Program, which currently serves 30 states. If you live in one of the states that isn’t served, you may be able to get help by visiting PensionHelp America, a site run by the nonprofit Pension Rights Center.