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Ask the Expert: Government pensions have separate rules

Your March 25 column stated that a woman who came to the United States from another country can collect Social Security based on her husband’s work record. My husband is an American who worked for the IRS. We heard he can’t collect Social Security from me because he never paid into it. I don’t understand why someone from another country who never worked or paid into Social Security can collect a benefit.

You’ve raised two distinct issues: basic Social Security rules and special rules for government workers.

Basics first: U.S. citizenship doesn’t entitle a person to Social Security, nor is it a requirement for receiving Social Security. A noncitizen who’s lawfully in the United States and meets all the eligibility requirements can collect benefits. And there’s no work eligibility requirement for spousal benefits, because they’re based on your spouse’s work record.

Your husband is subject to a special rule called the Government Pension Offset, which applies to federal, state, city and municipal workers who didn’t pay into Social Security. The offset reduces his Social Security spousal benefit — his potential benefit based on your work record — by two-thirds the amount of his government pension. For example, if his government pension is $1,500 a month, his Social Security spousal benefit is reduced by $1,000. The offset typically eliminates a spousal benefit.

Understandably, this seems unfair to many government workers; but the offset is intended to put them on an equal footing with everyone else. Nongovernment workers can collect their own Social Security benefit or a spousal benefit, whichever is bigger — but not both. Without the offset, government workers would have a unique advantage — they’d collect their own Civil Service benefit plus a spousal Social Security benefit.


People with government pensions are subject to special Social Security rules.

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