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Why doesn't my wife qualify for Social Security benefits?

October 10, 2012: 6:30 AM ET

My wife turns 65 this fall. She contacted Social Security to see about starting her retirement benefits payments. She was told her $3,720/month pension was too high for her to receive any benefits. Is this true? What are our options? — Name withheld

Kia Green Anderson, national spokesperson for the Social Security Administration (SSA), says your wife's payout may be reduced by the Government Pension Offset (GPO) or Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP).

The first provision, the GPO, applies if your wife receives a government pension from a job in which she did not pay Social Security taxes. If so, her Social Security spousal or widow benefits are reduced by two-thirds the amount of the government pension.

The Windfall Elimination Provision comes into effect if your wife's pension is from work she did for a government agency, nonprofit or an organization in another country, and she did not pay Social Security tax on that income. The annual SSA benefit estimates she received over the years wouldn't have reflected this reduction of your wife's retirement benefits because the SSA wasn't aware of that income at the time those reports were generated. However, the WEP does not apply if your wife has paid Social Security taxes on 30 years of substantial earnings, as defined by the SSA on its website (http://www.socialsecurity.gov/pubs/10045.html#a0=3). The SSA provides a WEP fact sheet and a WEP calculator (http://www.socialsecurity.gov/retire2/wep.htm) that details how she might be affected.

Without knowing all of the details about your situation, it is difficult to provide a definitive answer. That said, Green Anderson suggests it is unlikely that your spouse would be ineligible to receive any benefits, since the WEP calculation typically reduces, but doesn't eliminate, the benefits you qualify for. If you think the SSA was wrong, you can make an appointment to follow up in person with your local Social Security office by calling 800-772-1213.

— Austin Kilham

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