Marriage, Death and Your Survivor Annuity

A federal employee who died was divorced in 1988 but never filed a form to remove his former wife as his designated beneficiary. What impact does that have on his ex-wife whom he had divorced almost 20 years ago? Where financial impact does it have on his new wife? As this case shows, actions you take (or do not take) have an impact on those you leave behind.

The second wife of a deceased federal retiree lost her bid to get a lump sum death and survivor annuity since her husband had never cancelled his election to have this benefit go to an ex-wife who he had divorced almost 20 years previously. (Waters v. Office of Personnel Management, C.A.F.C. No. 2008-3036 (nonprecedential), 4/30/2008) The following facts are taken from the appeals court’s opinion.

Ms. Waters had been a long-term companion to Robert McTonnell, a former employee of the Postal Service. They married 16 days before he died following a long illness. According to the Office of Personnel Management, in 1962 Mr. McTonnell had named his previous spouse, Anne McTonnell, as his beneficiary for his lump sum death benefits. Robert and Anne divorced in 1988, but he never filed a form to remove her as his designated beneficiary. OPM concluded that Anne was therefore entitled to Robert’s lump sum death benefits. (Opinion, pp. 2-3)

As to Ms. Waters’ claim to a survivor annuity, OPM ruled that the law defines a widow as someone married to the federal spouse for at least 9 months prior to his death. Since Ms. Waters had only been married to Robert 16 days before his death, she did not meet the legal definition and was therefore ineligible to receive an annuity. (p. 3)

Waters appealed OPM’s denial of her lump sum death benefits and annuity claims to the Merit Systems Protection Board. Anne McTonnell joined the appeal as an intervenor. Waters testified that she and Robert had been close for 20 years, always intended to marry, and that Robert fully intended Waters to receive his government benefits but he died before he could submit the right paperwork to OPM. (p. 4)

The Administrative Judge ruled that because Robert had designated Anne McTonnell as his beneficiary for lump sum death benefits and did nothing to change the paperwork with OPM, then those benefits rightfully should be paid to his former wife. Therefore, Waters had no claim to these benefits. (p. 4)

As to Waters’ survivor annuity claim, the AJ denied it, citing the clear language of the statute that requires a spouse to have been married to the federal employee for at least 9 months before having any claim to a survivor’s annuity. (p. 5)

Waters took her case to the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals. However, the court has sided with OPM and the MSPB, finding no basis to disturb the decision of the Board. In short, Waters will receive no death or survivor benefits stemming from her husband’s federal service.

Time and again we see cases where federal employees apparently never got around to changing their designation of beneficiary or annuity elections following a divorce or marriage. This type of paperwork falls into the same category as a will. While unpleasant to confront your own mortality, it is something you need to do. When a major life change occurs, it pays to review the documents and make changes as needed.

About the Author

Susan McGuire Smith spent most of her federal legal career with NASA, serving as Chief Counsel at Marshall Space Flight Center for 14 years. Her expertise is in government contracts, ethics, and personnel law.