Changes in Your Life and Your Survivor Annuity: What Happens to Your Federal Employee Survivor Annuity

By on February 20, 2012 in Current Events, Retirement with 17 Comments

Back in 2008, I wrote a series of articles on what happens to your benefits if you:

  1. die after retirement;
  2. die while still working for the federal government; and
  3. leave federal service before you retire.

(Click on any of these links to see the relevant articles.)
Some of the comments on those articles asked about what would happen in certain circumstances if a retired individual had elected a survivor annuity and there were changes. In this article we will look at what will happen if a CSRS or FERS annuitant has elected a survivor benefit and

  1. the designated survivor dies before the annuitant; or
  2. the retiree divorces after retirement. We will also look at what happens if a retiree marries after retirement.

If you have elected a survivor annuity for a spouse and your spouse dies before you, you can be restored to a full and unreduced annuity after providing OPM with proof of your spouse’s death. You will not receive a refund of any of the money you had contributed for the survivor annuity.

If you divorce after retirement, the provisions of the divorce decree will determine what happens to the survivor annuity. Federal pensions are not governed by ERISA (they are governed by Title 5 of the United States Code), so special care needs to be taken when going through a divorce. Many divorce attorneys are not familiar with the title 5 rules, so divorcing federal retirees (or employees) should consult (or have their attorneys consult) with an expert in federal retirement rules. Ann Ozuna (http://thefederalretirementlady.com) is one of the many experts on divorce and federal retirement.

If you marry after retirement and choose to elect a survivor annuity for your new spouse, you may do so within two years of the marriage. The survivor annuity will not be effective until the marriage has lasted 9 months (sorry Kim and Britney). You will have to make back payments to cover the period of time where survivor benefits were not in effect.

For example, if you are a FERS retiree and were retired for five years, got married and elected a full survivor benefit, you would be responsible for 10% of the annuity payments you received over that five year period, plus 6% interest compounded annually. As most retirees will not have that kind of money sitting around, the payment is made by a permanent actuarial reduction to the retiree’s FERS or CSRS annuity. According to OPM, in most cases the actuarial reduction is less than 5% of the employee’s annuity.

John Grobe’s latest book, The Answer Book on Your Federal Employee Benefits, has just been released by LRP Publications. The book is written in an easy to understand question and answer format and covers all areas of federal benefits from the perspective of an employee at various stages of their career. Order your copy at shoplrp.com.

© 2016 John Grobe. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced without express written consent from John Grobe.

About the Author

John Grobe is President of Federal Career Experts, a consulting firm that specializes in federal retirement and career transition issues. He is also affiliated with TSP Safety Net. John retired from federal service after 25 years of progressively more responsible human resources positions. He is the author of Understanding the Federal Retirement Systems and Career Transition: A Guide for Federal Employees, both published by the Federal Management Institute. Federal Career Experts provides pre-retirement seminars for a wide variety of federal agencies.

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  1. Eileen Clarke says:

    I divorced 5 years ago and the divorce degree obigated both my former husband and myself to keep the survivers annunity in force for both of us (both Federal retirees). I just found out that I could add my new husband to the beneficiary form, and when my former husband is deceased, my current husband will be the beneficiary. It certainly gets confusing after retirement.

  2. Bertha Fernando says:

    If an elected survivor dies prior to the annuitant and the annuitant has contiributed for the elected survivor for a considerable number of years is it not possible to obtain at least the annuitants contribution based on the age of the annuitant and on humanitarian grounds

  3. HR Manager (Retired) says:

    To John Grobe:  How about an article based on the questions being asked.  It sure would help many of the readers and insure that they get the correct answer to their questions.  From reading some comments provided from readers attempting to answer someone’s question or address someone’s situation I can already see where the information provided is not completely on the mark.  You may also want to provide answer for CSRS and FERS eligibles. 

  4. Jyealy says:

    If your spouse is also a federal employee under CSRS would she get both retirements? Or would there be an offset against her retirement for her late spouse’s retirement?  

  5. greenid1 says:

    Do I understand this correctly?
    If I marry after I retire, I have to make back payments to the date I retired so that my new partner is entitled to survivor benefits, which they cannot collect unless we’ve been married 9 months. 
    So if I marry 6 months after retirement, I would have to pay back 6 months for the survivor benefit deduction, and then while still having new monthly deductions withdrawn, wait 9 months before my partner would be entitled to collect if I should die first?What if I paid it back and died within 7 months after my marriage?  Is that money refunded? 
    Is this not illogical?  Why would I pay for something that I didn’t have?
    If I bought a house this year and they told me I had to pay taxes for last year – even though I didn’t own the house last year – I would be looking to change the law. 
    Isn’t this something that should raise a red flag?

  6. Cidreno says:

    I’m retiring (Law Enf) in Oct under FERS. I’m not married and I am considering an insurable interest annuity for my domestic partner (1 yr apart) and mother of my son. I understand that I have to get a physical exam and notarize an affidavit. Question – I also have a term 20 year life insurance policy. I’ve heard that it might make sense to collect my entire annuity and count on the life insurance. Does that idea make sense?

    • GraspingATstraws says:

      Some would argue that you can’t outlive your election of an insurable interest annuity for your domestic partner but you could outlive your 20 year term policy which would leave your domestic partner emptyhanded after you die.  Electing a survivor annuity under FERS is one of the requirements to insure your domestic partner qualifies to remain in the FEHB program at gov’t rates after your passing.  An insurable interest annuity for your domestic partner comes at a heavy cost (10% of your pension).  Most term policies are a fraction of that cost.  Every persons situation is unique and requires a unique solution which you must determine factoring in policy values, life expectancy, health insurance needs, prior spouse/divorce, and the roll of the dice.  If you choose not to opt for the insurable interest annuity then you will probably need your domestic partner’s signature to opt out of it.  I would advise you to go for both and then if you ever find that the 20 year term isn’t working out for you then you can drop it and you still have something for your domestic partner to fall back on.  If you pass away during the 20 year term then you have given your domestic partner extra resources to live on or perhaps the college fund for your son.

      • BeneSpec says:

        You reference insuring that the “domestic partner qualifies to remain in the FEHB program…”  But domestic partners aren’t eligible for FEHB coverage!

    • Mail Man Retired says:

      Cidreno, as federal employees, we have always been a cash cow for our lawmakers. I hate to make this political but every time the Republicans get control we loose more pay and benefits.

  7. Mdsamn says:

    If your spouse dies after and you had elected survivor annuity, can anyone else
    be named as the survivor?

    • FERSretired says:

      If you remarry then go quickly to elect your new spouse a survivor annuity because there is a time limit starting the day you remarry.  If no spouse then you cannot elect a survivor annuity but you can designate a beneficiary for any unused contributions “you” made to the pension plan.  Keep in mind that “your” contributions are considered all paid out after 2 years of collecting your pension so it is unlikely there will be anything left for a beneficiary in the scenario you painted above.  Any “employer” contributions to your pension plan will remain in the CSRS/FERS money pot to meet future obligations to all existing CSRS/FERS pensioners and survivors.

    • GraspingATstraws says:

      According to a Jan 14, 2010 FedSmith article titled “Should you elect a Survivor benefit for your spouse?” there is something called an “Insurable interest Suvivor Annuity” that might work for you.  OPM has to approve it and the cost can be steep (approaching 40% in some cases).   Good luck

  8. earlyoutpleasesolve says:

    Let us out on early out. We will go away and never be heard from again.  We are still here because of penalty since we are not quite 60 so we can not leave. It is really weird that nobody sees the real BIG picture but I just painted it for you if you will look at this blog and write a bill or law that lets us out early.
    We want to go now.

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