How CPP Impacts Your Spouse’s U.S. Social Security Benefit

Recently, I got a pretty basic question on the website. Well, what seemed basic enough.

Does WEP also apply to a Canadian who lived in the US, never  worked in the US, but collects Social Security spousal benefits due to having an ex-husband who did work in the USA?

I have some good news and I have some even better news. WEP will probably not reduce your benefit.  The best news is that your ex spouse social security benefit should also not be impacted by GPO. Yep, another acronym designed to make social security planning a pain for those working in both the U.S. and Canada. This article discusses how WEP and GPO may impact your social security survivor, spousal, and widow benefits if collecting a foreign pension, like CPP.

What is WEP?

The Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP) may reduce your social security benefit in certain circumstances. WEP is applied when you have earned a pension while not paying social security taxes on the income. This tends to happen in two occasions:

  • You worked for a state or nonprofit organization that provides a social security equivalent pension, but you don’t make social security payments
  • You worked in another country in which the country or the private company you worked for provides a pension.

Many of my clients have worked in both the U.S. and Canada. They worked in Canada and earned a Canadian pension. Of course, while working in Canada they were not contributing to U.S. social security. Therefore, their social security benefit will potentially be reduced by WEP. The amount of the WEP reduction in social security is based on how many years worked in the U.S, and value of outside pension earned. For a more thorough article on how WEP impacts your own social security benefit, please read “How WEP Affects Social Security”.

What is GPO?

The Government Pension Offset (GPO) reduces social security in cases in which you had a job in which you earned a pension but didn’t pay into social security. However, GPO impacts spousal, widow, and survivor benefits and not your own earned benefit. This is the big difference between GPO and WEP.

Another big difference between WEP and GPO, is how badly GPO can impact your benefit. GPO reduces your spousal, survivor, or widow’s benefit by ⅔ of your non-covered pension. Your non-covered pension is the pension you earned while not paying into social security. GPO can actually eliminate your whole social security benefit. As a reminder, WEP can only reduce your social security by up to 60%

For example, let’s say that you earned a non-covered pension of $2,000 per year. Your wife worked and earned a social security benefit. As a result, you are eligible for a $1,000 spousal social security benefit. GPO however reduces the spousal benefit by ⅔ of $2,000, which is $1,333. This reduction is greater than your actual benefit, therefore eliminating the full spousal social security benefit. That’s a harsh penalty.

Does GPO impact my spousal CPP benefit?

However, there is one very large caveat with GPO. From the Social Security Administration (SSA), foreign pensions are exempt from GPO. That’s right, if you have a foreign pension, like the CPP, your social security survivor, widow, or spousal benefit should not be impacted. I have heard of families that have had their social security benefit reduced by GPO because of a foreign pension. Based on the SSA this is incorrect. However, there is a lot of confusion with social security employees in regards to WEP and GPO. I would show the social security employee you are working with the previous document, if he claims your foreign pension should result in a GPO of your social security benefit.

The rest of this article is based on the fact that SSA claims that your foreign pension should not result in a GPO reduction of your survivor, widow, or spousal social security benefit.  However, WEP can still reduce these benefits.

WEP and Spousal Social Security Benefit

If you worked long enough to qualify for U.S. social security benefits, typically your spouse will also qualify for social security.  Even if your spouse has never worked or earned a benefit on her own. This is called the social security spousal benefit. The benefit is half of the qualifying spouse’s social security, assuming both start drawing at full retirement age (FRA). So, if at FRA the qualifying spouse gets $2,000 per month, the spousal benefit would be $1,000 per month. This assumes she also waits until FRA to draw her benefit. If your spouse has worked and earned her own benefit, she would get either the spousal benefit or her own earned benefit, whichever is higher. This happens automatically when applying for social security. In order to receive the spousal benefit, the qualifying spouse would have to already been drawing his own benefit.

WEP reduces the spousal benefit when the qualifying spouse has a WEP reduction on his own benefit. I mentioned earlier that the spousal benefit is ½ the qualifying spouses benefit at FRA. If WEP reduces the qualifying spouse’s benefit, the spouse gets a reduced benefit as well.

WEP and Divorced Spouse Social Security Benefits

A divorced spouse social security benefit works essentially the same way as a spousal benefit. As long as you were married to someone for at least 10 years, are unmarried, and over age 62, you can qualify for a spousal benefit based on your ex-spouse’s benefit. The question I got above was asking if WEP will reduce her benefit based on her ex-spouse’s benefit. WEP should not lower her spousal social security benefit unless her ex spouse has a WEP reduction on his social security benefit. Also, as noted above she should not have a GPO reduction because foreign pensions are exempt from GPO.

Once, the qualifying spouse passes away, WEP actually goes away. More on that next.  

WEP and Survivor Social Security Benefits

If you are married and both you and your spouse are eligible to collect social security, a survivor benefit can be collected once the first spouse passes. The remaining spouse will get the higher of the two social security benefits. The lower of the two benefits will go away.

Let’s use the previous example again, where the higher earning spouse was collecting $2,000 and his spouse was collecting $1,000. If he passes away, now her new benefit will be $2,000 and the $1,000 benefit she was collecting is eliminated. However, if that $2,000 had a WEP reduction, her benefit will be even higher. WEP is eliminated for the survival social security benefit. If he had a $400 WEP reduction on his social security because of CPP, she will now get a $2,400 per month benefit. However, if she passes away first, his social security benefit will still be impacted by WEP.

Now, let’s discuss what happens if a spouse passes away prior to social security eligibility.

WEP and Widow Social Security Benefits

A survivor social security benefit is paid when a spouse passes away and the surviving spouse is eligible for social security. The widow’s benefit is when the surviving spouse is not eligible, or not collecting, social security yet. The widow’s benefit is very similar as the surviving spouse benefit. The surviving spouse will be eligible for the higher earning spouse’s social security benefit. There are three big differences between the widow’s benefit and the surviving spouse social security benefit:

  • A widow can start collecting a widow’s social security benefit as early as age 60
  • You can actually start collecting a widow’s social security benefit and later switch to your own benefit if higher
  • You can’t collect a widow’s social security benefit if you remarry prior to age 60

The question is, how does WEP impact a widow’s social security benefit? The answer is that it really shouldn’t. WEP goes away when the higher social security benefit collector who is subject to WEP passes away. Therefore, your widow’s social security benefit should not be impacted by WEP.

Conclusion

There is really only one situation in which WEP or GPO should negatively impact your spousal, survivor, or widow social security benefit. Your spousal social security benefit will be reduced by WEP, if your benefit is based on a spouse who has a social security benefit already impacted by WEP. You will get a lower spousal benefit, because your spouse has a lower benefit because of WEP.

GPO should not impact your spousal, widow, or surviving spouse benefit if you are also collecting CPP. According to social security, a foreign pension is exempt from the GPO rules. Like I mentioned though, I have heard of people who have a foreign pension in which social security claims it should be impacted by GPO. In that case, it is important to have this document handy, which shows foreign pensions are not subject to GPO.

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8 comments

  1. My wife is both a Canadian and US Citizen. She was born in Montreal and worked there until she married me in 2007 and moved to the US with me. She began getting CPP and QPP in 2019. She also gets US spousal support as my wife based on my years of contribution to social security.

    Questions:
    Will any of her benefits be reduced?
    Will she be taxed in the US for her CPP and QPP, and if so, based on US or Canadian dollars, and if taxed in US, what conversion rate?

    1. Thanks for the questions.

      It does not appear that any of her benefits will be reduced. She is receiving a spousal social security benefit, therefore if you are not subject to WEP, she should not have a WEP reduction.

      Yes, she is taxed on the CPP/QPP and OAS that she receives. She should have an OAS benefit as well, but many people miss this benefit. There is no tax withholding by Canada and these benefits are taxed the same way as social security here in the U.S. If she is getting the money deposited into her U.S. checking account, she will pay taxes on the amount that she ultimately receives.

      You have a lot going on, and it may make sense to have a quick conversation.

      Thanks,
      Bryan

      1. Brian,
        Thank you for your reply.

        Her CPP and QPP are being deposited in a Canadian bank account. Does that change who taxes it? We normally file a US Joint tax return and the FBAR.

        I wasn’t aware of the OAS. Can she still get that (age 69 now) even though she is living in the US?

      2. Hi,

        No, as a U.S. resident the taxes should be the same if it is deposted here or in Canada. Yes, she should be able to get OAS in the U.S. as long as she qualifies. I’ve seen people qualify for over $600 per month and have no idea.

        Thanks,
        Bryan

  2. Bryan, I’m wondering if it’s not worth my applying for the Canadian Pensions (CPP, OAS) when I turn 65 due to the anticipated impact of WEP? I moved to the US and began working in Oct 1997 at the age of 39 years and 10 months (born in Dec 1957). Prior to that I worked all of my life in Canada since the age of 20 (Dec 1977). In Feb 2015, I was lucky enough to be able to stop working and live off of my savings I accumulated over my life time by cashing out my Canadian employer RRSP and bringing that money over state side. It was a costly endeavor tax wise but ultimately worth it to me considering my personal circumstances. I have no further Canadian Foreign bank accounts or Canadian employer pension plans. I applied for and was approved for US SS and started collecting that benefit in January of 2020 after just turning 62. I am married, and have been a US citizen since 2009. My husband who is US born is also retired with a US employer pension and also collects US SS as well. I’m leary of applying for CPP & OAS at age 65 because of the impact of WEP; so wonder if I should not apply at all? And I want to confirm that my US SS benefit will continue at the same rate as long as I haven’t and don’t apply for CPP and OAS?
    I just received a letter in the mail from US SS Administration inquiring if I have started receiving a social insurance benefit from another country or a private pension based on earnings not covered by social security? I do not receive any such money. The letter also asks if not receiving any such money when do I expect to receive a pension and to identify the month and year, and what is the earliest date I could have received a pension had I stopped working and made application. I think they sent me this letter because when I applied for US SS I told them I thought I might be eligible in the future for the Canadian Pension Plan but was not sure if that was the case based upon if I had enough Canada work history.
    The withdrawal from my Canadian RRSP pension plan back in 2015 had the 25% withholding tax on the Canadian side taken out and on the US side at tax time those funds were counted as income for that tax year and were taxed accordingly. My gut tells me I should not apply for CPP and OAS when I turn 65 and just keep collecting my US SS benefit as is; which is currently $1,233/month with $137 withheld for Federal Tax withholding. Can you advise if this would be the correct option I should consider? Thank you.

    1. Hi Penny,

      Thanks for the questions. Typically, most of my clients will turn on CPP & OAS. OAS does not negatively impact social security so there is no reason to not turn it in. The most that WEP can reduce Social Security is half of your CPP. Therefore, it typically makes sense to turn on CPP as well.

      Hopefully this helps.

      Thanks,
      Bryan

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