Q & A

Ask Rusty – My State Pension Eliminated My Social Security Survivor Benefit

Dear Rusty: My husband of 21 years died in January 2022 at the age of 70. We were both retired at the time of his death, and they immediately stopped his Social Security payments. After many calls to Social Security asking why I was not receiving his benefits, I was finally told since I have my own pension from the State of Ohio that I would receive none of my husband’s Social Security. 

I cannot see why my OH retirement has anything to do with my husband’s Social Security. I do get a small payment from SS based on my past earnings before I worked for the State of Ohio. Is there any chance of fighting this since we were married when they took money from his earnings for SS? If I wanted to write to an elected official to see if these rules could be changed, who would I write to or call? Signed: Upset Widow

Dear Upset Widow: Unfortunately, your entitlement to a Social Security survivor benefit from your husband is affected by a provision known as the Government Pension Offset, or “GPO,” which affects any surviving spouse with a federal, state, or local government pension earned without contributing to the Social Security program. Ohio is one of 26 states which have opted not to participate in Social Security, thus exempting state employees from paying Social Security taxes on their earnings. The OH state pension which resulted from your state employment means that any Social Security benefits earned outside of your state employment are reduced. The GPO reduction to your survivor benefit is severe – a reduction by 2/3rds of the amount of your Ohio state pension, which can – and often does – completely eliminate any SS survivor benefit you might otherwise be entitled to. 

For clarity, the monthly SS payment your husband was receiving at his death stops automatically. At that point, your eligibility for additional SS benefits from your husband was assessed and, because of the GPO, Social Security offset your potential survivor benefit from your husband by 2/3rds of your Ohio state pension, which apparently eliminated your survivor benefit. As unfair as this may seem to you, note that the same thing happens to any surviving spouse who also has their own earned SS retirement benefit – their personal SS retirement benefit offsets their SS survivor benefit, so a spouse with a regular SS retirement benefit higher than their deceased spouse’s benefit gets no surviving spouse benefit. 

FYI, the State of Ohio has an obligation to make clear that by not paying into Social Security your future SS spousal/survivor benefits are affected. Without knowing how that was presented to you during your OH state employment, here’s a quote from Ohio’s Public Employee Retirement System (OPERS) website: “If you are eligible for Social Security benefits and are receiving a retirement benefit from OPERS, your Social Security benefits may be affected by the Government Pension Offset or the Windfall Elimination Provision. The Government Pension Offset may also affect you if you are eligible for Social Security benefits through your spouse. The Windfall Elimination Provision may affect you if you qualify for Social Security benefits due to your own work history.”

In any case, you are certainly not alone in your feelings about how your Social Security benefits have been affected by the GPO. This provision was enacted in 1983 and has been challenged in just about every Congressional session since that time, without success. In fact, there is a legislative bill active in the current Congress – H.R. 82 – The Social Security Fairness Act – which was introduced on the House floor in January and “referred to committee” for consideration. Like all preceding WEP/GPO reform bills, this one sits idle in Committee. If you wish to add your voice to those who oppose the GPO, you should contact your Congressional Representative to solicit action on H.R. 82. 

Comments On This Topic

  1. I know this is the law. My problem is when I applied for SS retirement I knew nothing about this law! When I decided to file, I called to set an appointment time and the SS office in Alice, TX told me I didn’t need one? I thought this unusual because I had worked for HHS in Farmington,NM. So, when I went to Alice and turned in my application the worker sitting at the front desk called a caseworker and she came to the front desk. Instead of having me go to her office for an interview??? Also, at this time I don’t believe I started receiving my TRS retirement so it wasn’t listed. Well, she figured what she believed my retirement should be without my going through the application process.
    After three years the SSA wrote and informed me I might have committed fraud and they were going to stop my retirement until 2025 due to the pension from TRS? SINCE THEN I’m desperately trying to live on $735 a month! I was hurt teaching in Texas(assaulted by a student) and therefore I’m not receiving full retirement from TRS! (That’s another issue. When I was hurt my principal refused to file a Worker’s Compensation report! When I did get him to file WC told me it was too late to apply! My Mother was dying of cancer and I didn’t fight this! Is there a recourse?) Back to SS case. I’m I’m even having to pay for my Medicare premium!!! I need to know if I have any way to reverse this decision?
    Thank you for your help and support,

    Nita Kylene Dowdy

    • Nita,
      We are sorry for your situation but can only offer sympathy for what you have encountered with the Social Security Administration and, apparently, with the Texas school system. Just FYI, TRS-covered employees should have been advised (by TRS) that their future Social Security benefits would be reduced because they were not contributing to Social Security while working under TRS. I have reviewed various TRS documentation which clearly state that TRS retirees who also become entitled to Social Security will have their SS benefits reduced due to their TRS pension. Here is a link to one such piece of TRS documentation: https://www.trs.texas.gov/Pages/active_member_social_security_at_trs.aspx
      Having said that, I can assure you that you weren’t singled out – there are about 26 U.S. states (including Texas) which do not require state employees to pay Social Security FICA payroll taxes and contribute to Social Security, and who suffer the consequence of a Social Security law known as the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP). It is the State employer’s responsibility to ensure that all employees are aware of WEP and, from Social Security’s perspective, your responsibility to tell them about your TRS pension, or your future TRS pension, when you apply. That apparently didn’t occur when you applied, thus you collected SS benefits which you were not entitled to until Social Security discovered your TRS pension and issued you the overpayment notice.
      From what you’ve shared, Social Security has already stopped your benefit payments and is using that money to satisfy the overpayment. I’m afraid there is no way to avoid that, except perhaps to file form SSA-634 to request a change to the recovery rate (due to financial hardship) which may result in you getting some amount of SS while the overpayment is satisfied. Here is a link to that form: https://www.ssa.gov/forms/ssa-634.pdf
      So, I’m afraid there is no way “to reverse this,” other than possibly convincing Social Security to offer you better repayment terms using form SSA-634. WEP has been part of Social Security law since 1983 and has withstood challenges for decades, so I cannot suggest a way to avoid this. If you are having financial difficulties, you may wish to visit this website sponsored by the National Council on Aging – http://www.benefitscheckup.org – where you can simply enter your zip code, answer a few basic questions, and find all types of assistance which may be available where you live.
      Nita, I’m sorry I can’t be more helpful, but we’re here if you have any other questions about your Social Security benefits.
      Russell Gloor
      National Social Security Advisor
      The AMAC Foundation

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