Senior couple sitting on bench in field | I love images/Getty Images

Dear Senior Living Adviser,
I am a retired firefighter with a public pension. Because of that pension, my monthly Social Security retirement benefits were reduced significantly.

I applied for Social Security at age 65 because I was told (at my local Social Security office) that my benefits were so small it wouldn’t make any difference if I waited until my full retirement age.

It occurred to me some time later that while it might not have made a difference to me, it might have made a difference for my wife if she collects anything under my Social Security earnings record.

My wife is 6 years younger (62) and has not yet filed to collect Social Security retirement benefits. She has worked enough to collect benefits, based on her earnings when the time comes, but she mostly worked low paying jobs and the benefits based on her earnings won’t be much.

There are no survivor benefits from my pension, so when I die, her only income will be a Social Security benefit. I understand her benefits will change at the time of my death, but will it return to the level that it would have been if I hadn’t had a public pension?
— John

I love images/Getty Images

Dear John,
Your Social Security benefits were reduced because of the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP). According to the Social Security Administration, “If you work for an employer who does not withhold Social Security taxes from your salary, such as a government agency or an employer in another country, any pension you get from that work may reduce your Social Security benefits.”

Provision doesn’t apply to survivors benefits

There’s some good news. The Windfall Elimination Provision does not apply to survivors benefits. The bad news is that because you filed for Social Security benefits at age 65, instead of at your full retirement age of 66, the survivors benefit will be reduced.

Your wife is eligible for a spousal benefit based on your earnings record, but the WEP will reduce the amount of that benefit because her spousal benefit is based on your adjusted retirement benefit and not on your primary insurance amount.

There are enough moving parts here that I’m going to recommend that you work with a private consultant to determine an optimal claiming strategy for your wife, based on her earnings record and the fact that she hasn’t yet reached full retirement age. My recommendation is for her to work with either Social Security Solutions or Maximize My Social Security.

Thanks to Edward Lafferty, spokesman for the Social Security Administration, for helping me with this reply.

Ask the adviser

To ask a question of Dr. Don, go to the “Ask the Experts” page and select one of these topics: “Senior Living,” “Financing a home,” “Saving & Investing” or “Money.” Read more Dr. Don columns for additional personal finance advice.

Bankrate’s content, including the guidance of its advice-and-expert columns and this website, is intended only to assist you with financial decisions. The content is broad in scope and does not consider your personal financial situation. Bankrate recommends that you seek the advice of advisers who are fully aware of your individual circumstances before making any final decisions or implementing any financial strategy. Please remember that your use of this website is governed by Bankrate’s Terms of Use.