A: Your questions and others like it are very often raised by government workers and their spouses.
First, an answer. Then, an explanation. Fair warning: You won't like either one.
Your husband probably won't be eligible for spousal Social Security benefits based on your record because as a former civil servant, he's subject to a rule called the Government Pension Offset. Under the offset rule, his spousal benefit will be reduced by two-thirds of the amount of his government pension.
For example, if his federal pension is $1,200 a month, $800 would be subtracted from his Social Security spousal benefit.
As a result of this rule, people who work in a federal, state or local government job where they don't pay Social Security taxes usually don't get benefits based on their spouses' Social Security earnings.
Your husband worked in the private sector as well as for the government, but apparently didn't pay into Social Security for the 40 quarters -- i.e. ten years -- that are required to qualify for benefits based on his own record.
You ask if 'his contributions to Social Security' can be combined with yours to boost your benefit. No, they cannot be -- but the question highlights a very common misconception. We often refer to Social Security taxes as 'contributions'. But paying into Social Security isn't like making contributions to a 401(k) plan. It's like paying taxes that build public highways you may never drive on; or paying taxes that support the public school system even if you don't have children. We pay Social Security taxes that support a public safety net not all of us get to use.
Okay -- what's the explanation for the Government Pension Offset?
Believe it or not, the rules that reduce government workers' Social Security benefits were actually created to make sure they're treated like everyone else. Here's why:
Social Security rules say that you can collect your own benefit or a spousal (or survivor's) benefit, whichever is the larger amount; but you can't collect them both. Until 1977, however, a government employee could collect his own civil service pension plus a Social Security benefit based on his or her spouse's earnings. The offset was created to eliminate this unique advantage.
What if your husband, who spent most of his career in government service, had also has earned his own Social Security benefit in the private sector? The Social Security Administration would use a modified 'Windfall Elimination Provision' formula to calculate his benefit because the standard formula would give him a windfall that non-government workers don't get.
Under the standard Social Security formula, lower-paid people get a higher percentage of their pre-retirement earnings than higher-paid people do. A lower-paid worker's benefit can equal 55% of his pre-retirement earnings, for example. A highly-paid worker's benefit on average equals only 25% of his pre-retirement earnings.
If you use the standard formula for a person who spent most of his work life in a job not covered by Social Security, he's treated like a long-term low-wage non-government worker. In other words, he gets the higher percentage Social Security benefit on top of a government pension. The modified formula is intended to eliminate that advantage.
Please send your questions to Lynn@LynnBrennersFamilyFinance.com. I'm sorry I can't respond personally to every email. Questions are only addressed online.