Lack of Detail Leads to Denial of Survivor Annuity

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Here is another recent case that establishes the critical importance of dotting every “I” and crossing every “t” if a retired federal employee intends to give a former spouse a survivor annuity. (Briggs v. Office of Personnel Management, CAFC No. 2012-3023 (nonprecedential), 4/9/12)

Mr. Briggs, a twenty-year postal employee on disability retirement, elected a reduced annuity so his spouse could get the maximum survivor annuity. At the time of his retirement, Briggs and his wife had been separated five years and the divorce became final about a year and a half later. The divorce decree made no mention of the survivor annuity. Worse, it includes language that “the parties have no retirement/investment funds to distribute.” (Opinion p. 2)

Following the divorce, Mr. Briggs never filed the necessary paperwork with OPM electing a survivor annuity for his former spouse as is required by law. Less than a year following the final divorce decree, he died and his ex-wife applied to OPM for her annuity. The OPM decision was predictable: Mr. Briggs’ election for a survivor annuity terminated when the divorce became final and since he did not file the necessary paperwork after the divorce to make a new election for his ex-wife, she gets nothing. (p. 3) The Merit Systems Protection Board, finding there was plenty of evidence that Mr. Briggs intended to provide his ex-wife with the annuity, nevertheless ruled that OPM had followed the legal requirements in denying Mrs. Briggs’ application. (p. 3)

The appeals court explains in its decision denying Mrs. Briggs’ appeal that its hands are tied:

“Although this case presents us with a straightforward legal question, its disposition is a difficult one. We are sympathetic to Ms. Briggs’ plight. The record makes clear that Mr. Briggs intended to provide his ex-wife with survivor annuity benefits and that, during their marriage, he reduced his own annuity benefits so as to make that happen. Unfortunately, Mr. Briggs failed to follow the procedures necessary to bring this outcome to fruition. Other than noting our sympathy for Ms. Briggs, there is nothing we can do to alter the outcome dictated by the system Congress put in place.” (p. 9)

We see several appeals court decisions a year with similar fact situations. They underline the critical importance of following the process carefully to ensure an intended survivor annuity can actually be paid to a former spouse.

Briggs v. OPM (2012-3023)

© 2020 Susan McGuire Smith. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced without express written consent from Susan McGuire Smith.


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.