Social Security Matters: Ask Rusty – My state pension eliminated my Social Security survivor benefit

Published 12:22 pm Friday, July 28, 2023

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By AMAC Certified Social Security Advisor Russell Gloor, Association of Mature American Citizens

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 Ohio retirement has anything to do with my husband’s Social Security. I do get a small payment from Social Security 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 Social Security? 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

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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 Ohio 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 two-thirds of the amount of your Ohio state pension, which can – and often does – completely eliminate any Social Security survivor benefit you might otherwise be entitled to.

For clarity, the monthly Social Security payment your husband was receiving at his death stops automatically. At that point, your eligibility for additional Social Security benefits from your husband was assessed and, because of the GPO, Social Security offset your potential survivor benefit from your husband by two-thirds 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 Social Security retirement benefit – their personal Social Security retirement benefit offsets their Social Security survivor benefit, so a spouse with a regular Social Security 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 Social Security spousal/survivor benefits are affected. Without knowing how that was presented to you during your Ohio 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.