No Survivor’s Annuity for a Wife of 41 Years

Yet another court decision underscores the need to be careful and specific when working out divorce settlements where federal retirement and survivor’s annuities are involved in the property being divided.

A recent court decision underscores the importance of getting it right when trying to receive a federal retiree survivor’s benefit following a divorce. In Parks v. Office of Personnel Management (CAFC No. 2013-3032, 6/11/13, nonprecedential), the ex-wife is left without the benefit by the time the dust settled.

June Parks was married to Willie Lee Parks for more than forty years. Mr. Parks retired from the federal government in 1998. He elected a survivor’s annuity for June, as they were still married at the time.

Seven years later the couple divorced in San Diego County in California. Their settlement agreement made no mention of the civil service retirement annuity. It instead provided a set spousal support amount to be paid by Mr. Parks to his ex-wife.

Several weeks after the divorce settlement was reached and signed, Mr. Parks wrote OPM to cancel the survivor annuity, which resulted in an increase in the annuity payable to Mr. Parks. OPM made the adjustments. A couple of years later, the local California court issued an order that for the first time mentioned Mr. Parks’ federal retirement annuity, assigning Mrs. Parks thirty-six percent of Mr. Parks’ monthly pension benefits. The court decree also referenced that should Mr. Parks predecease his ex-wife, she would be “eligible to receive a post-retirement surviving spousal annuity [per] the election made by [Mr. Parks] on the date of his retirement” without any mention of the fact that Mr. Parks had cancelled the survivor annuity option with OPM more than two years before this ruling. (Opinion p. 3)

After her ex-husband died a few years later, Ms. Parks asked the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) for her survivor’s annuity. Predictably OPM denied her claim for benefits since their annuitant had cancelled the survivor’s annuity for his ex-wife following their divorce.

Ms. Parks unsuccessfully took her challenge to OPM’s ruling to the Merit Systems Protection Board and then the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals. The original divorce settlement agreement is what tripped Ms. Parks up “by failing to provide expressly for a survivor annuity.” (p. 4) The agreement required Mr. Parks to pay a specific amount to his ex-wife each month. “It neither provided for a survivor annuity nor reserved disposition of the issue for later decision.” (p. 5) Sure, the later court decree ordered up a survivor’s annuity, but it was too late since the annuity was not specifically covered in the original divorce settlement.

In short, OPM’s denial of a survivor’s annuity to Ms. Parks stands and she gets nothing.

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.