Q: I identify in some respects with the comments in your Nov. 4 column on how Social Security benefits affect civil-service survivor annuity benefits. I, too, am a widow retired from the federal government. I have been told that I can draw my late husband's Social Security at age 62, which will be soon. You referred to the dollar-for-dollar offset applied to Social Security when receiving a federal pension. My understanding of this is not clear; please give me an example.
A: Your case differs from the one in the November column because that reader was a widow who was eligible for a surviving spouse benefit from both Social Security and her husband's civil-service retirement, while you're drawing civil-service retirement pay on your own account. As you may recall, she could receive both survivor benefits in full, without any offset.
Your letter gives me an opportunity to correct a minor misstatement in that column: The offset is not dollar-for-dollar, but rather 2-for-3. That is, the Social Security benefit is reduced $2 for every $3 of civil-service annuity received. (I call the error "minor" because in most cases, even this lesser offset will wipe out the Social Security benefit entirely.)
Here's the example you asked for: Let's say your civil-service annuity comes to $1,000 a month. As a surviving spouse you qualify for, say, $550 a month in Social Security benefits based on your husband's covered eligibility. Two-thirds of your civil-service annuity equals $667 -- which means that you would lose the entire $550 that you would otherwise be eligible for under Social Security. You would only draw any Social Security benefit that exceeded that $667 offset.
There's an apparent inequity in this offset. You earned the civil-service pension by your own work for the federal government, and your husband earned his Social Security benefits by his work in covered employment. The right to provide a survivor's benefit for a spouse is part of the Social Security program -- yet you are losing that survivor's benefit because you worked on your own.
There's more. Starting with those who become eligible in 1986, computation of Social Security benefits is based on a modified formula that reduces Social Security if the worker also is eligible for a pension from work not covered by Social Security, such as federal employment. (A worker with at least 30 years of Social Security coverage is exempt from any modification.)
These are not the only inequities in the Social Security rules, as any survivor of a two-earner family can tell you -- in fact, inequities abound in virtually any area of regulation you want to look at. The rules are always a compromise, at some level, between equity and pragmatism; practicality dictates the drawing of lines and the forming of groups that are not always homogeneous.
As a result, someone always gets caught on the wrong side of the line. Unfortunately, to those like you who are faced with the real impact of what is in theory a necessary -- if not totally logical -- decision, I don't have much to offer but sympathy and a suggestion that you convey your unhappiness to your elected representatives.
Q: My municipal bond is now in Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings, and I am not receiving my interest checks. Can I claim a loss on my income tax? They are trying to reorganize and may just pull it off, at which time interest will resume -- but at a lower rate. Is it true that because I don't pay taxes on the interest, I can't claim a loss, either?
A: You may not claim a loss on your income tax return for interest due but not received. Your tax saving would come in the fact that you don't report income not received, although, of course, on a municipal bond you don't report the interest anyway (at least on the federal return).
However, if reorganization turns out to be a pipe dream and the bonds become worthless, you may claim a capital loss, even though the security involved is a tax-free bond. You report the loss on Schedule D -- long-term if you have owned the bond for longer than six months -- with zero proceeds and a "sale" date of Dec. 31 of the year in which the bond is determined to be worthless.