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Social Security Matters: Ask Rusty – Why won’t Social Security give me my widow’s benefit?

Dear Rusty: I have been a widow since November 2019. I retired under the Federal Civil Service Retirement System. Before my husband died, I made an appointment with Social Security to see if I could receive his Social Security if he passed on. I was told I could. Since he passed, Social Security has adamantly refused to let me have my husband’s Social Security. I have had many problems with them. Who is correct here? I have lost $1400 per month. My social security check is about $126 per month. Signed: Frustrated Widow

Dear Frustrated Widow: First, please accept my condolences on the loss of your husband. Unfortunately, I don’t have good news for you.

Because of your Federal Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) pension, you are subject to the “Government Pension Offset” (GPO) provision of Social Security. The GPO reduces the survivor benefit for anyone who also has a pension from an employer which did not participate in Social Security (neither the employer or the employee paid into Social Security), and your Federal CSRS pension falls into this category. GPO reduces any survivor benefit you might otherwise be entitled to by 2/3rds of the amount of your CSRS pension, which often eliminates the survivor benefit. For clarity, GPO also applies to a Social Security benefit from a living spouse.

As you probably already know, your CSRS pension caused your own Social Security benefit, earned from other work outside of your Federal employment, to be reduced by the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP). Unfortunately, whoever you previously spoke with at the Social Security Administration prior to your husband’s death gave you some incorrect information, because you are also subject to the GPO. And that is why Social Security will not now pay you a survivor benefit from your husband.

I’m afraid you have no recourse on this, as both the GPO and WEP have been the law for decades. The Federal Government has now changed to a “Federal Employee Retirement System” (FERS) which fully participates in Social Security (both employees and the employer contribute to Social Security), so more recent Federal retirees are not subject to the WEP and GPO rules. But there are still many U.S., state and local government employers which, to varying degrees, do not participate in Social Security and whose employees are still impacted by both GPO and WEP.

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