Retired public servant feels government pension offset is ‘unjust’

Question: I’m a retired firefighter and live in Ohio. I earned Social Security from my side employment, but the Windfall Elimination Provision hit my Social Security very hard. My wife worked in the school system and earned a state SERS pension. I understand the WEP offset and that doesn’t bother me as much as the fact that my wife doesn’t get my Social Security benefits when I die — her state pension is above the monthly limit for her to receive my Social Security. I earned that benefit by working extra jobs and being away from my family, and it seems unjust that my benefits expire with me. Thanks for letting me vent. Signed: Retired Public Servant

Dear Retired Public Servant: The provision you deem as “unjust” isn’t the Windfall Elimination Provision which affects SS retirement benefits for those who also have a “non-covered” pension (a pension earned without contributing to Social Security); rather it is the Government Pension Offset which also affects those who have a pension earned without contributing to Social Security. Though I know it is no consolation, your frustration about the Government Pension Offset is shared by nearly a million other Americans in a similar situation. The GPO has been law since 1983 and is intended to “equalize” how spousal and survivor benefits are paid to all beneficiaries. I’m certainly not defending it, but I’ve researched why the GPO was enacted decades ago.

Historically, ever since spousal and survivor benefits became part of Social Security’s benefit structure in the late 1930s, if a spouse also has their own personally earned SS benefit, any spousal/survivor benefit they also became entitled to was offset by their personally earned SS retirement amount. The prevailing opinion in the 1983 Congress was that because regular spousal and survivor benefits are normally offset by the spouse’s own earned SS benefit, it was unfair that a spouse who had a “non-covered pension” didn’t incur the same offset as those who had no such non-covered pension. Thus, GPO was enacted in 1983 to “equalize” how spousal and survivor benefits were paid. It is the GPO which will affect your wife’s benefit as your surviving spouse because she earned her state pension while not contributing to Social Security.

To give you a more personal perspective, if your wife had, instead, worked outside of the OH school system and was entitled to a full Social Security benefit based on her own earnings from which she contributed to SS, any survivor benefit she might become entitled to from you would still be offset by her personally earned SS retirement benefit. If her own SS retirement benefit was more than her entitlement as your widow, she would get no additional amount as your surviving spouse. Or if her own SS retirement benefit was smaller than yours, her survivor benefit would still be offset by her own benefit (her benefit would be paid first and only a supplement added to bring her payment to the higher amount she was entitled to as your widow). The purpose of the Government Pension Offset is to equalize how spousal, or survivor benefits are paid to those with, and to those without, a non-covered pension. Indeed, because the GPO only offsets the potential spousal/survivor benefit by 2/3rds of a spouse’s non-covered pension, the GPO is actually a bit more forgiving.