Federal Employee Death Benefits: The Daughter is Not Her Mother’s Spouse

Here’s a rather bizarre case revolving around who should be paid death benefits for a federal employee whose husband was found to have been responsible for her death.

Here’s a rather bizarre case revolving around who should be paid death benefits for a federal employee whose husband was found in a civil court case to have been responsible for her death. (Byrum v. Office of Personnel Management, C.A.F.C. No. 2009-3264, 9/9/10) The facts summarized below are taken from the appeals court’s decision.

It seems that the court in the civil case, having concluded the husband was responsible for his wife’s death, ordered him to assign his rights in the federal death benefits to their daughter Stephanie Byrum. The husband did just that and the daughter claimed the benefits. (Opinion p. 2)

Not so fast, said the Office of Personnel Management. OPM denied the daughter’s claim since she was not the deceased’s (her mother’s) spouse, finding she was therefore not eligible to claim them. On appeal, the Merit Systems Protection Board sided with OPM. The Board’s decision was limited to the conclusion that Stephanie Byrum (the daughter) was not her mother’s spouse. (Huh?)

On appeal to the Federal Circuit, apparently the Department of Justice (representative of the Government in the appeal) argued that the MSPB did not err in its conclusion that Stephanie was not her mother’s spouse. (Again, huh?) (p. 2)

In framing the appeal before it, the Federal Circuit did not seem happy, as it had this to say about this odd and obviously annoying situation:

“Those uninitiated in the ways of government might suppose a conclusion regarding whether a daughter was or was not also her mother’s spouse, even on these scant facts, to be somewhat strange, and might even suppose that a correct conclusion regarding that proposition is sufficiently self-evident not to have required two years of administrative consideration. One might even think there must have been something else at issue. In fact, there was. It falls to us to explain to the Justice Department, the MSPB, and OPM why it is now necessary, after all the administrative proceedings that preceded, for this court to vacate and remand the matter so OPM can start over, addressing the issues Ms. Byrum’s claim actually presented.” (pp. 2-3)

This amounts to a bad day in court for the government.

Backing up, the appeals court outlines the essential facts. Rebecca Moulton (the deceased) was an 18-year employee of the U.S. Postal Service and had been married to David Moulton for about 17 years at the time of her death.

The husband applied for the benefits not long after Rebecca’s death. Apparently OPM has never ruled on this application.

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.