Complicating Factors

A cautionary tale of how federal retirement benefits, survivor annuities and Social Security can become tangled.

What happens when you cross a Civil Service Retirement System retiree with one covered under CSRS Offset? You can get a very confusing situation if the CSRS Offset spouse dies first.

This is what happened to "Mr. Rogers" when his wife passed away several years ago. Mrs. Rogers retired under CSRS Offset. During her federal career, part of her time was under CSRS coverage that was exempt from Social Security and part was covered by both CSRS and Social Security. Mrs. Rogers was covered under CSRS Offset from 1987 until she retired in 2002 because she had a break in service of more than one year and was rehired after 1983. That meant her CSRS contributions were reduced by the Social Security tax. Normally, CSRS employees contribute 7 percent of basic pay biweekly to the Civil Service Retirement and Disability Fund. CSRS Offset employees have their retirement deductions reduced by the Old Age Survivor's and Disability Insurance tax.

If Mrs. Rogers had lived to age 62, her CSRS retirement benefit also would have been reduced by a portion of her Social Security retirement benefit. This offset is applied when the basic requirements for Social Security are met (usually at 62) even if the retiree does not apply for Social Security. If the retiree is not entitled to Social Security at 62, there is no offset until or unless he or she later becomes entitled to Social Security. The offset represents roughly the amount of Social Security retirement that was earned during the CSRS Offset service.

When Mrs. Rogers applied for CSRS retirement, she chose to receive a reduced annuity to provide the maximum survivor annuity for Mr. Rogers -- an amount equal to 55 percent of her CSRS retirement. It worked out like this: Mrs. Rogers was entitled to 56.25 percent of her $75,000 high-three average salary for 30 years of federal service, or $42,187. This annuity was reduced by $3,948 a year to provide the maximum survivor's annuity for Mr. Rogers. That cut her CSRS benefit to $38,238.

When Mrs. Rogers passed away, Mr. Rogers was entitled to 55 percent of $42,187, or $23,203 a year. Mrs. Rogers would have turned 62 in 2007, and her retirement would have been offset by a portion of her Social Security benefit attributable to her CSRS Offset service. This was computed at $474 a month, or $5,688 a year. The amount of survivor annuity payable to the spouse of a deceased CSRS Offset annuitant may be reduced if the spouse is eligible for Social Security survivor benefits based on the deceased's federal service covered by Social Security. So in 2007, Mr. Rogers' survivor annuity of $23,203 was itself offset by $5,688 a year, and he began receiving a reduced benefit of $17,515.

But the law also says the following: "A surviving spouse who is not entitled to Social Security survivor benefits is paid the full CSRS survivor benefits." The offset of a CSRS survivor annuity stops on the date the survivor loses eligibility for Social Security survivor benefits due to any of the following reasons:

  • The survivor becomes eligible for a Social Security benefit based on his or her own earnings under Social Security and the benefit exceeds the survivor benefit.
  • The survivor remarries before age 60.
  • The Social Security benefit stops because a minor child reaches age 16 and the survivor is under age 60.

Mr. Rogers was retired under CSRS and had not paid Social Security taxes during his federal career, because CSRS employees are exempt from the FICA tax. So he did not meet any of the above exceptions. Nevertheless, Mr. Rogers was not eligible for a widow's benefit from Mrs. Roger's Social Security history because he was affected by the Government Pension Offset. Under GPO provisions, any entitlement that Mr. Rogers had to Social Security spousal or widow's benefits must be offset by two-thirds of his CSRS retirement. According to a letter Mr. Roger's received from the Social Security Administration, his widow's benefit based on Mrs. Rogers' Social Security earnings would be $1,642 a month. Since two-thirds of Mr. Rogers' CSRS retirement benefit was more than that amount, he was not entitled to receive any of his deceased wife's Social Security benefit.

So here's Mr. Rogers' situation in a nutshell: Since 2007, when his deceased wife would have turned 62, he has been receiving a reduced CSRS survivor's annuity of $17,515 a year -- $5,688 less than the full amount, due to the CSRS Offset being applied. The amount of the offset is supposed to be recovered when the survivor annuitant begins receiving widow's benefits from Social Security. But due to the GPO, Mr. Rogers was not entitled to widow's benefits.

For almost four years, Mr. Roger's received $5,688 a year less than the full amount of his CSRS survivor annuity entitlement. During this time, he inquired with the Office of Personnel Management, the Social Security Administration and even his congressional representatives to see if there had been some mistake. He didn't think it made sense that he should have his survivor's annuity reduced if he was not going to receive any widow's benefits from Mrs. Roger's Social Security benefit. Thanks to diligent work on the part of OPM employees who saw the situation the same way he did, the agency decided to allow him to recover the underpayment since 2007. And from here on, he will receive the full survivor's annuity that Mrs. Rogers provided.

This story has a happy ending, but it's too bad this situation had not been previously tested. The moral of the story is that it pays to know the rules and question them if something doesn't seem right.

Tammy Flanagan is the senior benefits director for the National Institute of Transition Planning Inc., which conducts federal retirement planning workshops and seminars. She has spent 25 years helping federal employees take charge of their retirement by understanding their benefits.

For more retirement planning help, tune in to "For Your Benefit," presented by the National Institute of Transition Planning Inc. live on Mondays at 10 a.m. EDT on federalnewsradio.com, or on WFED AM 1500 in the Washington-metro area.

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