Q: I read your recent column explaining the offset I will suffer because I get a small teacher's pension that will prevent me from getting full benefits on my husband's Social Security record. My husband gets $2,400 per month from Social Security. I only taught for a short while and get $400 from the Texas teacher's retirement system. If I drop that pension, can I get full Social Security from my husband — now and when he dies?
A: Before I answer your question, I must first clarify for the rest of my readers what you are talking about.
There is a law that says an amount equal to two-thirds of a retirement pension from a non-Social Security-covered job must be deducted from any spousal benefits you are due from Social Security. It is called the government pension offset. And as I constantly point out in this column, Social Security retirement pensions cause a 100 percent spousal offset. So people who get non-Social Security retirement pensions — like Texas teachers — actually get a break because of the GPO law.
Anyway, you would have to ask the people who run the Texas Teacher's Retirement System if you can drop their retirement pension. But I think you would be foolish to do so. Let me explain by giving you some examples. (And to keep my math simple, I am going to assume you are 66 or older in these examples.)
If you dropped your TRS pension, you would be eligible for half of your husband's Social Security, or $1,200 per month.
If you kept your TRS pension, an amount equal to two-thirds of that pension, or about $267, must be deducted from your Social Security spousal benefits. So you would get $933 per month. But of course, you would also get your $400 teacher's pension, for total monthly benefits of $1,333. So why would you want to drop your TRS pension?
And the same logic holds true after your husband dies. Without your TRS pension, you would be due $2,400 in widow's benefits.
With your TRS pension, you would be due $2,133 in Social Security widow's benefits and $400 in teacher's retirement benefits, for a total of $2,533.
Q: I read your recent column explaining the offsets that apply to some state or local government employees. My wife worked all of her life as a teacher in California and gets a teacher's retirement pension. She does not get any Social Security on her own record. And after reading your column, I finally understand why her teacher's pension will keep her from getting any Social Security on my record. But I am concerned about my own Social Security. I turn 66 in August and plan to file for my benefits then. Will the fact that she gets a teacher's pension reduce my own Social Security checks?
A: No. Her teacher's pension has absolutely no impact on your Social Security retirement benefits. So you will get your full Social Security retirement check and she will get her full teacher's retirement check. Enjoy retirement!
Q: My husband worked almost all of his life for the Union Pacific railroad. But over the years, he did have some jobs where he paid into Social Security. I worked some and think I am due a small Social Security check on my own, but I should get more off my husband's railroad account and maybe his Social Security. When I called the Social Security people about this, they said I have to talk to the railroad people. But can this be true even for our Social Security accounts?
A: Before I answer your question, I've got to give a little background for my readers not familiar with railroad work and Social Security. When the Social Security Act was passed in 1935, it did not include coverage for railroad workers because they already had their own pension system in place. So career railroad workers have always been exempt from paying Social Security taxes.
Over the years, the two programs, Social Security and Railroad Retirement, have come to mimic each other. Most of their rules regarding benefits and eligibility are pretty much the same. Yet they are still managed by two entirely separate government agencies: the Social Security Administration and the Railroad Retirement Board.
And the working agreement between SSA and RRB says this: If someone has 10 or more years of railroad-covered work, his or her retirement claim will be handled by RRB. If someone has combined railroad work and Social Security-covered work, all claims for benefits, both railroad benefits and Social Security benefits, are handled by RRB — again, as long as the railroad work lasted 10 years or more.
I remember many instances while I worked for SSA when someone with 10 years of railroad work would come into my office to file for his or her Social Security benefits. I was allowed to take the Social Security retirement claim, but then I had to ship that claim to RRB for processing.
The same would hold true for dependent's and survivor benefits. If, for example, a woman came into my office to file for widow's benefits on her husband's Social Security record, I would have to send that claim to RRB and let them handle it as long as at least 10 years of his work was for a railroad.
According to friends I have still working for SSA, claims are still handled that way today. So that's why you are probably just better off dealing with RRB rather than SSA. Personally, I always thought that was no way to run a railroad (pun intended), but it's just the way it works. And because the RRB doesn't have that many field offices around the country, it can get a bit cumbersome to deal with them.
If you want to find out more about how RRB processes claims and interacts with Social Security, go to their website: www.rrb.gov.
If you have a Social Security question, Tom Margenau has the answer. Contact him at [email protected]
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