Member Groups

Women and the LawThe newsletter of the ISBA’s Standing Committee on Women and the Law

March 2012, vol. 17, no. 3

Social Security benefits not so beneficial to widows receiving government pensions

It’s extremely difficult losing your spouse at a young age. Perhaps you have young children who have just lost one of their parents. Perhaps your financial well-being has been put in jeopardy. Many widows rely on the fact that they will receive their late spouses’ social security benefits when retirement becomes a reality. However, in some cases, the law restricts widows who receive a pension from a federal, state or local government from receiving their deceased spouses’ social security benefits.

What many government employees may not realize is that social security benefits are reduced by two-thirds of their government pension.1 The government pension offset (GPO) may affect the age at which a widow elects to take social security benefits, or it may completely eliminate any social security benefits the widow would have received had he or she not been entitled to a government pension. For example, a Lake County employee is widowed at a young age and can finally begin thinking about retirement. She is eligible to receive a monthly pension in the amount of $3,000, and she is also eligible to receive a widow’s benefit from Social Security in the amount of $2,000. However, two-thirds of $3,000 ($2,000) must be deducted from the Lake County employee’s social security widow’s benefit pursuant to the GPO. In this example, the Lake County employee will receive no widow’s benefit from Social Security upon reaching the eligible age.

The financial well-being of widows in our society is of grave concern to lawmakers. Compared to the overall population, widows are much more likely to live below the poverty line. Of all widows ages 55 and older, 15.7 percent live in poverty. This is three times as much as married couples ages 55 and older.2 A number of bills have been introduced in Congress to repeal the GPO, which affects widows who have had government careers as teachers, police officers, postal workers, and civil servants.3 For the time being, however, widows should educate themselves on the GPO as they approach 60 years of age, the age at which they are first able to claim widow’s benefits through Social Security.4 Sitting down with your financial planner, visiting your local Social Security Administration office and reviewing your pension plan with the appropriate professionals will assist in fully informing yourself of your benefits prior to taking the plunge into retirement. ■

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1. <http://ssa.gov/pubs>.

2. Shuart, Amy N., David A. Weaver, Ph.D. and Kevin Whitman. 2002. “Widowed Before Retirement: Social Security Benefit Claiming Strategies.” Journal of Financial Planning. Available at: <http://www.fpanet.org/journal/CurrentIssue/TableofContents/WidowedBeforeRetirement/>.

3. Social Security Fairness Act of 2007, H.R. 82, 110th Cong., 1st Sess. (2007).

4. Widows can claim survivors’ benefits at 60 years old receiving a prorated amount of their late spouses’ social security income. <http://ssa.gov/survivorplan/survivorchartred.htm>.

I recently came across an article on the Forbes.com website written by Deborah Jacobs titled “Estate Planning for Women (and the Men Who Love Them).” The article cited a surprising statistic about U.S. population in our golden years—among Americans 65 years of age and older, 42% of women, but just 14% of men, are widowed. Women’s longer life expectancy, combined with some tendency to marry older mates and some lower lifetime earnings on average means that women are significantly more likely to see their living standards compromised in retirement if proper estate planning is not done in advance.

That article brought me to research some additional data points related to the difference between men and women in retirement age. Perhaps the most shocking statistic was that male widowers over 60 years of age are roughly 15 times as likely to remarry as their female counterparts!1

So why am I rehashing the statistics that might seem somewhat gloomy for women? Judging from professional experience and life observations, with which Deborah Jacobs seems to agree, it frequently appears that the male spouses tend to be more heavily involved in the estate planning process. Women sometimes take the supporting role and defer to their significant others to make the “right choices.” Reading these statistics made me appreciate the true importance of women taking charge and being highly involved in the process. After all, seeing the bare numbers makes one realize how heavily disproportionately women are effected due to frequently being the survivors in a couple.

On the flip-side, when men are the survivors, the likelihood that they will remarry late in life is significantly higher than with female survivors. The remarriage may shift the priorities with respect to donor intent at death and the dispositive provisions of the estate may not be what you envisioned together during joint lifetime. The children from the first marriage may no longer be the primary beneficiaries of the estate. While we have a tendency to avoid these conversations for natural reasons, be it an aversion to thinking about passing away or unequivocal trust in the significant other to make the appropriate choices, it is important to have the conversation about your ultimate vision of disposition of wealth and make sure that your voice is heard and captured in the estate plan. ■

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1. Ken R. Simith, Cathleen D. Zeek; Greg J. Duncan; Remarriage Patterns Among Recent Widows and Widowers; Demography, Vol. 28, No. 3 (Aug., 1991), p. 366.


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