Social Security spousal and widow(er) benefits were created to provide security for people who typically did not work full-time and were financially dependent on their spouses. They provide the spouse who does not work with some Social Security benefits based on the working spouse’s Social Security earnings.
However, if both spouses worked and are eligible for individual Social Security pensions, one spouse could still file for a spousal or widow(er) benefit even though he or she is not dependent on the other spouse. This is known as dual entitlement. To prevent dual entitlement, the government implemented rules that reduce the amount of spousal or widow(er) benefits a person can receive by the amount of their own Social Security pension benefit earned by virtue of having worked. These dual entitlement rules prevent double-dipping—or receiving both a personal Social Security pension benefit and a spousal or widow(er) benefit from Social Security.
However, some government employees, including Texas educators, work in jobs that pay into government pension programs (such as TRS) rather than Social Security. Because these employees have little or no Social Security-covered employment, it appears that they are dependent on their spouses when in reality they are not. This situation allowed these public employees to apply for spousal Social Security benefits without being subject to dual entitlement rules. That was the motivation behind the enactment of the GPO.
The GPO was designed to mirror dual entitlement rules that would otherwise apply and prevent anyone, including those receiving government pensions, from receiving both their full Social Security or pension benefit and their spouse’s Social Security benefit. Anyone filing for spousal benefits who is not eligible for a pension would have their spousal benefits reduced by the entire amount (100%) of their personal Social Security benefit, effectively providing them with the greater of the two benefits. Those affected by the GPO, such as Texas educators, have their spousal benefits reduced by only two-thirds of their pension, instead of 100% of their personal Social Security benefit. Simply being eligible for a pension through TRS does not preclude you from receiving spousal benefits; however, since most people’s TRS pension is greater than a typical Social Security benefit, the two-thirds reduction effectively eliminates the spousal benefit.