The Windfall Elimination Provision reduction rules affect about 2 million people or about 3% of Social Security beneficiaries.
Social Security’s many rules are certainly perplexing, but none spark more anger and confusion than the offset rules that reduce or eliminate Social Security benefits for public employees who also receive a pension based on a job at which they didn’t pay FICA payroll taxes.
Welcome to the bizarre world of the Windfall Elimination Provision and the Government Pension Offset rule.
If you’re eligible for Social Security and you also have a pension from a government job or work in a foreign country where you didn’t pay FICA taxes, the Windfall Elimination Provision, or WEP, can reduce your Social Security retirement or disability benefits by up to half of the amount of your pension. The WEP can reduce, but not eliminate, a worker’s retirement or disability benefit. Reductions can’t exceed $557 per month in 2023.
The Government Pension Offset, or GPO, rule is a more onerous provision that applies to Social Security spousal and survivor benefits. It affects public employees, including schoolteachers in 15 states, who receive a pension based on work where they didn’t pay FICA taxes.
The WEP and GPO rules apply to federal employees hired before 1983 under the old Civil Service Retirement System, air traffic controllers, postal workers, police and firefighters, some teachers, and certain state and local workers in 26 states, including California, Colorado, Illinois, Louisiana, Ohio and Texas.
WEP reduction rules affect about 2 million people or about 3% of Social Security beneficiaries. The GPO affects more than 800,000 people, primarily women who apply for Social Security spousal or survivor benefits. In some cases, an individual may be subject to both WEP and GPO reductions.
WEP REDUCTION FORMULA
The WEP provision reduces your benefit amount before other factors, such as reductions for early retirement or increases for delayed retirement credits or annual cost-of-living adjustments, are applied.
For example, if you turn 62 this year and you’ve paid FICA taxes on covered employment for 20 years or less, WEP reduces your Social Security benefit by $557 per month. The WEP reductions don’t apply if you paid Social Security payroll taxes for 30 years or more on substantial earnings, which have increased from $900 per year in 1937 to $29,700 per year in 2023.
Assume your full retirement age is 67 and your basic benefit amount is $1,396 per month. After the WEP reduction, your benefit amount would be $839 per month ($1,396 – $557) if you claimed Social Security at 67. But if you claimed at 62, your benefit would shrink to 70% of your WEP-reduced benefit amount. You would receive just $587 per month ($839 x 70%) compared to the $977 per month you would have received at age 62 if your benefit hadn’t been reduced by WEP.
Or, if you decide to delay claiming Social Security beyond your full retirement age, your benefit would increase by 8% per year up to age 70. Your age 70 benefit would be $1,040 per month ($839 x 1.24) compared to the $1,731 per month you would have received if your benefit had not been reduced by WEP.
One piece of good news for married couples: WEP reductions die with the worker. If you have a spouse collecting on your earnings record, her maximum benefit would be worth 50% of your WEP-reduced benefit amount ($839 x 50% = $419.50 per month) during your lifetime if she claimed at her full retirement age; less if she claimed earlier. But if you die first, your widow’s survivor benefit would be worth 100% of your unreduced benefit amount — $1,396 per month in this example.
Now let’s assume you’re a Texas school teacher with a pension of $6,000 per month based on work where you’ve never paid FICA taxes. You know you’re not entitled to a Social Security benefit on your own earnings record but you figure you can claim as a spouse on your husband’s earning record in the private sector. Maybe not.
The GPO rules would reduce any potential Social Security spousal or survivor benefit by two-thirds of the amount of your pension, which would be $4,000 per month in this case. That GPO reduction would wipe out any spousal benefit and may even eliminate any Social Security survivor benefit.
I usually recommend that married couples coordinate their Social Security claiming strategies so that the spouse with the larger benefit delays claiming until age 70 to create the largest retirement benefit, and possibly the largest survivor benefit for the remaining spouse. But in this case, where the surviving spouse may not be eligible to collect a survivor benefit, it may not be worth the other spouse’s delaying claiming their benefit beyond full retirement age.
(Questions about new Social Security rules? Find the answers in Mary Beth Franklin’s 2023 ebook at MaximizingSocialSecurityBenefits.com.)