First Ladies Get A Pension — Under Certain Circumstances
It’s not really a benefit you want to take advantage of.
It’s no secret the first lady has a lot on her plate. She’s responsible for getting involved in the president’s political campaigns, championing social causes, organizing official White House events, and acting as a representative for her spouse during special occasions. But even though the first lady may be one of the hardest working people in Washington, her pay while in office leaves a lot to be desired. But what about after she leaves office? Do first ladies get a pension? Here’s how some former first ladies have stayed comfortable after leaving the White House — and how some haven’t.
Despite all the work the first lady does in Washington (and around the world), she doesn’t actually receive an official salary, as her position isn’t an elected one. So although she has her own office in the East Wing of the White House, the first lady’s position is still only officially labeled as a “ceremonial” one. This follows her even after she leaves office, as “no pension is given to a former first lady,” according to the National First Ladies’ Library. However, there is a catch: If a former president dies and leaves a former first lady a widow, then Congress may vote on whether or not the widowed former first lady should receive a pension.
The idea behind giving a widowed former first lady a pension is to ensure she lives a comfortable, dignified life after her spouse’s death. While the federal government didn’t officially establish the law until 1958, the initial first lady to receive an annual payment after her husband’s death was Mary Lincoln, wife of President Abraham Lincoln. After her husband was assassinated in 1865, she obtained approval from Congress to receive a pension, per the White House.
Plenty of former first ladies have taken advantage of the “pension precedent” after leaving office, per the First Ladies Library, including Anna Harrison, Peggy Taylor, Lucretia Garfield, Ida McKinley, Jacqueline Kennedy, Florence Harding, and Eleanor Roosevelt. But before Mary Lincoln set the precedent, one former first lady was subjected to a small stint of destitution: Julia Gardiner Tyler, wife of former president John Tyler. After her husband died in 1862, Tyler devoted herself to serving the Confederacy, and its defeat rendered her “impoverished,” per the White House website. She lived for 18 years without a widow’s pension, until the year 1800, when Congress voted to give her $1,800 a year. After former President James A. Garfield’s assassination in 1881, Congress then voted to give all presidential widows $5,000 a year.
Nowadays, the “pension precedent” isn’t used as much — the most recent first lady to take advantage of it was Lady Bird Johnson. Currently, being the widow of a former president can get you a $20,000 annual payment, per Congressional Research Service. But while a sizable annual payment for being the former president’s widow may seem like a sweet deal, the benefits a former first lady gets while her husband is still alive are much, much better.