Ask Larry: Will The GPO Reduce My Social Security Survivor’s Benefits?

Today’s column addresses questions about whether and how public pensions could affect survivor’s benefits, the merits of delaying until 70 to file if possible and whether spousal benefits are available after long term separation. Larry Kotlikoff is a Professor of Economics at Boston University and the founder and president of Economic Security Planning, Inc.

See more Ask Larry answers here.

Have Social Security questions of your own you’d like answered? Ask Larry about Social Security here.


Will The GPO Reduce My Social Security Survivor’s Benefits?

Hi Larry, I retired nine years ago at 52 from the state. My husband passed away before he retired so I can not get his full pension, but SSA said I can’t get a widow’s benefit either because I make too much. Is that correct? Thanks, Lori

Hi Lori, I can’t be sure without more information, but based on the limited information in your question it sounds like your problem likely involves the Government Pension Offset (GPO) provision.

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Due to GPO, if a person is receiving a pension based on their work for a governmental agency in the US where their earnings were exempt from Social Security taxes, then any Social Security spousal or survivor benefits for which they would otherwise qualify are offset by 2/3rds of the amount of their government pension.

In other words, if you didn’t pay Social Security taxes on your earnings for the State of Ohio and if you’re drawing a pension based on those earnings, then you could likely only be paid Social Security widow’s benefits if your widow’s rate is more than 2/3rds of the amount of your state government pension.

My company’s software — Maximize My Social Security or MaxiFi Planner — is fully programmed to handle cases involving GPO as well as the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP), so you may want to consider using the software to see what options may be available to you. Social Security calculators provided by other companies or non-profits may provide proper suggestions if they were built with extreme care. Best, Larry


Does My Strategy Seem Reasonable?

Hi Larry, I am 64 and wondering about the merits of waiting until 70 versus drawing my Social Security retirement benefit at full retirement age. In my case, FRA is 66 and four months, when I would be eligible for $31,500 in yearly benefits.

If I continue to work at my job drawing a salary, and contributing to my 401(k)- for another 44 months until 70, my yearly benefits will be $41,000 per year. I am currently in excellent health. If I live to be 90 years old, I think I would rather have a 20 year retirement at $41K per year (with modest COLAs) than a 23.67 year retirement at $31K.

Does this strategy seem reasonable? Thanks, Jack

Hi Jack, Yes, it sounds quite reasonable. The longer you live, the more advantageous that waiting until 70 to start drawing your Social Security retirement benefits becomes.

Of course, no one knows what the future may hold, but waiting until 70 to start drawing your retirement benefits is a good way to insure against outliving your assets. Best, Larry


Can I Collect On My Husband’s Record If We’re Separated?

Hi Larry, My husband and I are not legally divorced. We’re still married but haven’t lived together for 20 years. Can I collect on his work record? Thanks, Millie

Hi Millie, Possibly, but only if you’re at least age 62, and if your husband is drawing Social Security retirement or disability benefits.

Furthermore, if you were born after 1/1/1954, you could only qualify for spousal benefits during your husband’s lifetime if his primary insurance amount (PIA) is more than twice as much as your PIA. A person’s PIA is equal to their Social Security retirement benefit rate if they start drawing their benefits at full retirement age (FRA). Best, Larry


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