Former presidents have pursued a range of careers after departing the Oval Office. While many presidents have written books or made post-office careers of giving speeches to earn income, others have started nonprofit organizations to continue the charitable endeavors they were able to support during their presidential tenures. William Howard Taft took a different route when he went on to become a Supreme Court Justice. But after holding the highest office in the land, are presidents working because they have to—or because they want to? And what retirement benefits, if any, do former commanders-in-chief get?
According to the Former Presidents Act, which was passed in 1958, ex-presidents are entitled to a handful of benefits following their presidency, including a pension and funds for travel, office space, and personal staff. Dwight D. Eisenhower passed the act largely to help Harry Truman, who struggled to support himself after leaving the White House. Truman turned down a slew of cushy job offers, explaining that, "I could never lend myself to any transaction, however respectable, that would commercialize on the prestige and dignity of the office of the Presidency."
Today, more than 60 years later, former presidents can thank the Former Presidents Act and similar legislation for their lifelong benefits. The Secretary of the Treasury currently pays a lifetime annual pension of just north of $200,000 to Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. If a former president dies before their spouse, the spouse gets an annual pension of $20,000 as well as franked mail privileges and lifelong Secret Service protection (unless they remarry).
The Government Services Administration pays for office space, furniture, staff, and supplies. It also reimburses them for their move out of the White House and any work-related travel they do. The amount of money former presidents get for their office space and staff varies. In 2010, for example, Carter’s office in Atlanta came in at $102,000 per year, while Bill Clinton’s New York office was $516,000.
Besides a pension and office-related funds, former presidents get lifelong Secret Service protection for themselves, their spouses, and their children under 16. In 1985, 11 years after resigning the presidency, former President Richard Nixon decided to forgo his Secret Service detail. Claiming that he wanted to save the U.S. government money—his Secret Service protection cost an estimated $3 million each year—Nixon opted to pay for his own bodyguard protection rather than have taxpayers fund it. Although Nixon was the only president to refuse Secret Service protection, his wife opted to drop her protection one year earlier.
Nixon's decision to resign the office of the presidency was probably a smart decision, financially speaking, as the Act indicates that a president who is forced out of office via impeachment would not be entitled to these post-presidency benefits. But because Nixon resigned before he could be impeached, the Department of Justice ruled that Nixon should be eligible to receive the same financial benefits of his fellow former presidents. Similarly, because Clinton was impeached but acquitted, his retirement benefits were safe.
Some critics point out that living former presidents, with their millions of dollars of income from speeches and books, shouldn’t use taxpayer money to supplement their already vast incomes. But it looks like benefits for former presidents are here to stay.
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