Shouting ‘fire’ — or WEP or GPO — in a crowded theater

Many, if not most people, are familiar with the phrase “shouting fire in a crowded theater” — even if they might have trouble recalling who first said it (Justice Oliver Wendell Holms in a 1919 case before the Supreme Court) — and why.

The modern day equivalent of the panic-starter is to bring up the subject of the Government Pension Offset or Windfall Elimination Provision in any venue — theater, retirement community, house of worship — with a large number of retired federal or state government employees, or their spouses.

The initials may not mean much, if anything, to you, but ask your federal parents or grandparents, then watch their blood pressure go off the charts.

So what’s the big deal? GPO and WEP can eat into, and in some cases gobble up, much of the income of folks who worked for and get an annuity or pension from a state, local or federal government. Backers of GPO and WEP say they are both fair and equitable. But don’t advance that argument at your local NARFE meeting unless you want trouble. The group which represents both active and retired feds has made modification or elimination of the so-called Evil Twins (GPO/WEP) a top priority for decades.

Yet they are still on the books, and retirement experts Tammy Flanagan, a columnist for Government Executive magazine, and James Marshall with Federal Retirement Planning LLC., deal with them almost every day after a horrified former fed or surviving spouse learns from Social Security what’s in store for their retirement benefit not covered by Social Security.

Tammy Flanagan will be my guest today live today 10 a.m. EDT, on www.federalnewsnetwork.com or at 1500 AM in the Washington, D.C., area. Meantime, for background, each has agreed to share answers and observations from someone seeking help and clarification from Social Security about WEP and GOP issues.

First, Marshall wrote:

“Just FYI — for several years, I’ve always had the affected individual reschedule an appointment with a supervisor at the SSA, and until recently, 100% of the affected individuals had their benefits corrected when it was pointed out that the individual was exempt from the GPO. It almost always required a second visit/appointment with the SSA to help these individual get the benefits that they were entitled to.

“However, in the last year or so, I’ve encountered this problem more often and for the first time, here in 2020, I’m having to assist people with filing appeals with the MSPB based on erroneous final decisions from the SSA.”

Then, Tammy Flanagan wrote:

Hi everyone,

Has anyone else noticed problems with SSA lately? There seems to be an extraordinary number of federal retirees being affected by the GPO and WEP even though they are meeting exceptions to these provisions. When I’ve called SSA, they tell me that they don’t really know the difference between [the Civil Service Retirement System] and CSRS Offset. I’ve also been told that someone retiring under CSRS Offset has to have a manual override in order for the system to not apply the GPO and WEP provisions. I need to find a person at SSA who can address this situation. I’ve been working with the clients listed below all summer and can’t seem to find a resolution. We’ve filed requests for reconsideration in all three cases to no avail — they continue to be underpaid. I’ve quoted from their own POMS manuals to show how these people meet the exceptions, but nothing — crickets. James said that he has noticed these issues at NARFE as well. This is getting ridiculous as these cases involve ten of thousands of dollars, not just a few hundred.

1: This man had issues twice; first when his first wife died in 2007 and now when his second wife passed away in August. He is exempt from the GPO, but they are applying it anyway.

Client:

The email string below describes how you were able to get OPM to fix my survivor annuity. Let me tell you another Catch-22 affecting me: I have been working and paying Social Security since I retired from Civil Service in August 2007, and now have paid for 33 years, plus the 3-and-a-half years as CSRS Offset. In 2012, I married again, and my second wife just died on Aug. 4. I applied for her Social Security benefits since they are $1,200 a month higher than mine. Today, SSA told me I am not eligible for my wife’s Social Security because I am CSRS Offset. Have you come across this situation before? It doesn’t make sense to me. There have to be other Offset retirees who are in the same situation. I would appreciate any thoughts you have.

Tammy:

I am very sorry to hear about the loss of your second wife last month. I recently wrote about the Government Pension Offset in my column, just last week, as a matter of fact.

Since you only had 3-and-a-half years under CSRS Offset, you would not be exempt from the GPO under the current exception. However, since you retired in 2007, you didn’t necessarily need to have 60 months to meet the exception. [From the SSA Program Operations Manual System]:

Transitional rule for last day of service between July 1, 2004 – March 1, 2009. If the last day of government service occurred after June 30, 2004, and before March 2, 2009, the 60 months of Social Security covered service requirement may be reduced (but not to less than one month). Reduce the covered service requirement by the total number of months the worker had in Social Security covered government service under the same retirement system on or before March 2, 2004. The months do not have to be consecutive. Any remaining months needed to fulfill the 60 months requirement must be worked after March 2, 2004.

Was any of your federal service prior to 2004 covered by Social Security such as seasonal work or a temporary appointment? That might be how you can prove you are exempt from the GPO and be entitled to your late wife’s benefit. You may need to appeal the denial of your claim or ask for a reconsideration so that someone can find out if you meet this exception.

Thank you for reminding me about the 2011 article I wrote about your situation.

2: This woman was told that she has a $47,000 overpayment due to the GPO … she is exempt from the GPO having retired under CSRS Offset for more than 60 months.

-Client:

I attended a seminar you conducted at EXIM Bank a few years ago. I am now retired and just received notice that my Social Security benefit will be reduced due to the Government Offset provision — this should not apply to me. I would appreciate the opportunity to speak with you to confirm that I am correct about this, and to determine the best way to appeal the decision. Kindly let me know when you are available — I will be happy to pay your hourly rate.

Thank you, EXIM Retiree

3: This woman had her SSA record corrected and I have a copy of her 35-plus years of SSA covered employment, yet, her SSA benefit is only $665 per month as they are paying her based on incorrect retirement classification under CSRS. She is being underpaid by over $1,000 per month.

-Client:

I am a federal employee retiree. Upon retiring, I was informed that I had been placed in the wrong retirement coverage. I was originally placed in CSRS rather than CSRS Offset. I have been informed that I’m under FERCCA, but the type of error doesn’t provide me of a choice of retirement coverage. Last week I received a notification from [the Office of Personnel Management] of the change in my monthly annuity. I would like my case to be reviewed to ensure that my new monthly annunity is correct. I have yet to hear from Social Security as to my benefits. They have provided OPM with my offset amount which reduced my CSRS annunity.

Thank you.

Here are some links to articles Tammy has written about the complex laws.

Nearly Useless Factoid

By Alazar Moges

The Berlin Zoo had nine elephants at the beginning of WWII. The Indian elephant bull called Siam was the only pachyderm to survive the Allied bombing raids. The first one was killed in 1940, and then the bombs that fell in 1944 killed seven more, leaving Siam all alone in what was left of his enclosure.

Source: War History

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