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: Windfall elimination provision explained

Dear Liz: I understand your explanation of the windfall elimination provision that reduces Social Security benefits if someone is receiving a pension from a job that didn’t pay into Social Security. I am a teacher with such a pension who also worked more than 10 years in the private sector. I’d accept the explanation and the reduction if the WEP were applied in all 50 states. As you know, it is not. How is this reduction justifiable in any way?

Answer: The idea that WEP doesn’t apply in all states is a myth. WEP applies regardless of where you live. What matters is whether you’re getting a pension from a job that didn’t pay into Social Security. Some states provide such pensions while others don’t.

“If a state doesn’t provide its workers with their own pension and instead has them join Social Security, then exempting them from the windfall elimination provision is fully appropriate,” says economist Laurence Kotlikoff, president of Economic Security Planning Inc., which offers Social Security claiming software at MaximizeMySocialSecurity.com.

As mentioned earlier, WEP is not designed to take away from you a benefit that others get. Rather, the provision is designed to keep those who receive pensions from jobs that didn’t pay into Social Security from getting significantly higher benefits than workers who paid into the system their entire working lives.

That can happen because of the progressive nature of Social Security benefits, which are meant to replace a higher percentage of a lower-earner’s income than that of a higher earner.

People who don’t pay into the system for many years can appear to be much lower earners than they actually are. Without adjustments, they would get bigger benefit checks than people in the private sector with the same income who paid much more in Social Security taxes.

Q&A: Two husbands. Which benefit?

Dear Liz: I am 66 and recently widowed after a five-year marriage. I was previously married and divorced after more than 20 years. I paid into Social Security as a professional for 20 years. How do I determine how to file for Social Security benefits? Should I just file for my benefits? Should I wait until I am over 70? Should I file for spousal benefits and, if so, for which husband?

Answer: Let’s take that last question first. You’re only eligible for spousal or divorced spousal benefits if the worker on whose record you’d be claiming is still alive. Spousal benefits can be up to half what the worker would get at the worker’s full retirement age. If the worker has died, by contrast, you could be eligible for survivor benefits, which can be up to 100% of the worker’s benefit.

So you may be eligible for three different types of benefits: your own retirement benefit, a divorced spousal benefit based on your ex’s record (because you were married at least 10 years) and a survivor benefit based on your late husband’s record (because you were married for at least nine months at the time of his death). Normally, you lose the ability to claim divorced spousal benefits when you remarry, unless the second marriage ends in divorce, annulment or death, as yours did.

Which one to claim and when will depend on the details of your situation. You can call Social Security at (800) 772-1213 to get estimates of what you’d get on each record. Consider using a paid service such as Social Security Solutions or Maximize My Social Security to help you figure out the best strategy for claiming benefits.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Parents with student debt want a do-over. Also in the news: What you need to know about Medigap Plan G, don’t let Social Security steer you wrong, and why Millennials and Gen Zers should be investing in Roth IRAs.

Parents With Student Debt Want A Do-Over
Nearly 1 in 3 parents regret their decision.

What Is Medigap Plan G? What You Need to Know
Medigap Plan G, part of Medicare Supplement Insurance, helps cover additional costs not met by Original Medicare.

Don’t Let Social Security Steer You Wrong
When to claim benefits is a complex decision. Don’t rely on the help line staff, and consider getting a pro’s help.

Why Millennials and Gen Zers Should Be Investing in Roth IRAs
Minimize your tax exposure while taking advantage of compound interest.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Don’t let Social Security steer you wrong. Also in the news: 3 times to think twice about paying for your kid’s college, a new episode of the Smart Money podcast on investing, and how to spot the signs of a better market for homebuyers.

Don’t Let Social Security Steer You Wrong
When to claim benefits is a complex decision. Don’t rely on the help line staff, and consider getting a pro’s help.

Pay for Your Kid’s College? 3 Times to Think Twice
Don’t take on college debt for your child if your financial health will suffer when your kid doesn’t pay the bill.

Smart Money Podcast: Nerdy Deep Dives: Investing, Part 1
Exploring your personal money background and how it can affect your investing choices.

The Property Line: Watch for Signs of a Better Market for Buyers
Home buyers can track the number of offers, days on market and inventory to see whether the market is becoming more favorable.

Don’t let Social Security steer you wrong

Few retirement decisions are as critical, or as easy to get wrong, as when and how to take your Social Security benefits. The rules can be so convoluted that many people rely on what they’re told by Social Security employees, but that could prove to be an expensive mistake.

In my latest for the Associated Press, how to protect your Social Security and learn the facts.

Q&A: About spousal and survivor benefits

Dear Liz: I am 82 and receive $786 from Social Security. My wife is 75 and receives $1,400 from Social Security. I believe you said that a lower beneficiary could get the same amount as the higher beneficiary. When I contacted Social Security, I was informed that my benefit needed to be less than half of my spouse’s in order to qualify. When I asked him where in the regulations I could find that information, he abruptly hung up. Was he right?

Answer: Yes. The only time you would get the same amount as your wife is if she died, and at that point you would get only the survivor benefit (one check for $1,400, instead of the two checks totaling $2,186 you receive now as a couple).

Survivor benefits are different from spousal benefits. Spousal benefits are what you might receive while your wife is alive. Spousal benefits can be as much as 50% of the higher earner’s “primary insurance amount,” or what she was entitled to at her full retirement age. If your retirement benefit is larger than that spousal benefit amount, you would get your own benefit rather than the spousal benefit.

The Social Security site has plenty of information on how benefits work as well as calculators to help you estimate your benefits. You can start by reading its publication titled “Retirement Benefits” at https://www.ssa.gov/pubs/EN-05-10035.pdf.

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: Medicare and Social Security

Dear Liz: If my wife and I wait until we are 70 to collect Social Security but retired at our full retirement age of 66 and 2 months, would we still be able to get Medicare for those 3 years and 10 months before we reach 70?

Answer: You’re eligible for Medicare at age 65, which is typically when you should sign up. Delaying can incur penalties you’d have to pay for the rest of your life.

People receiving Social Security benefits at 65 are signed up automatically for Part A (hospital coverage) and Part B (which pays for doctor visits), with the Part B premiums deducted from their benefits. If you’re not already receiving Social Security, you’ll need to contact the Social Security office, which manages Medicare enrollment, to sign up and pay the Part B premiums.

Q&A: Why delaying Social Security is the smartest retirement play

Dear Liz: If someone delays applying for Social Security after their full retirement age, the common thought is that their benefit grows by 8% a year until the age of 70. It accrues by that much only if you continue to work, right? I was unceremoniously laid off during the pandemic and I am holding off as long as I can before applying. I will be 67 at the end of this month. But because I am not working, that 8% is not a reality, right?

Answer: Wrong. The 8% delayed retirement credits apply whether you’re working or not. Those credits will help you maximize the benefit you receive for the rest of your life and potentially the rest of your spouse’s life, if you are the higher earner in a marriage. This effect is so powerful that many financial planners recommend their clients tap other resources, such as retirement funds, if it allows them to put off claiming Social Security.

It may help to think of retiring as a separate event from claiming Social Security. Many people link the two, but you can work while claiming Social Security or retire but delay Social Security.

If you did continue to work, your benefit might be increased somewhat by the additional earnings. This typically happens if you had a low-earning year included in the 35 highest-earning years that Social Security uses to calculate your benefit. If you had earned more in 2020 than in one of those previous years, then your 2020 earnings would replace that past year’s earnings in the formula and boost your benefit.

The 8% delayed retirement credit probably will have a much bigger effect on what you ultimately get, though, so don’t fret about any missed opportunities. Just try to delay your application as long as you can.