Homicide, Suicide and A Federal Retirement Payment

A retired federal employee killed his wife. Should the sons of the former federal employee receive the lump-sum payment from his annuity or should the son of the retired federal employee’s wife receive the money? The MSPB decides.

Here is a fact situation involving a federal retiree worthy of a Shakespearean drama.

A retired federal employee under the FERS system, Michael Cross, designated his wife, Susan Orndorff, as his only beneficiary for any contributions to his retirement account payable upon his death.

But, as sometimes happens, events that were probably unforeseen earlier in the relationship intervened and created a dispute among the descendants. Cross and Orndorff did not have any children together. They each had adult children as a result of previous relationships.

Subsequent to the designation of his beneficiary, Mr. Cross killed Ms. Orndorff and then, apparently, took his own life. A local newspaper account of the incident summarizes the 2011 event.

What happens to the payment of FERS lump-sum death benefits? Does the fact that a person will receive a payment from the government when a person became entitled to this benefit because the retired federal employee intentionally killed his wife?

Who Gets the Money?

Ms. Orndorff’s son applied for a lump-sum credit based on Mr. Cross’s federal service. However, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) concluded that Ms. Orndorff died before Mr. Cross apparently killed himself. Therefore, under the statutory order of precedence, Cross’s two adult sons, who intervened in this appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) were the beneficiaries of the lump-sum benefit.

Ms. Orndorff’s son, Junior F. Whetzel III, appealed the decision by OPM to award the lump sum payment to the sons of Mr. Cross: Christopher M. Cross and Sean D. Cross. His appeal was based on the argument that a State of Virginia law known as the “Slayer Statute” should guide the decision of OPM in this instance.

The Role of the “Slayer Statute”

The Slayer Statute says that “[n]either the slayer nor any person claiming through him shall in any way acquire any property or receive any benefits as the result of the death of the decedent.” In plain English, the son of the woman who was killed argued that his mother’s estate should receive the money and that the sons of the man who killed his mother should not receive the money.

The MSPB Administrative Judge agreed with this argument and concluded that the son of Ms. Orndorff should receive the money.

OPM apparently found this decision unacceptable and still believed that the son of the man who killed Ms. Orndorff should receive the payment from the federal government. Its theory was that the Slayer Statute was not interpreted correctly in the initial decision. OPM appealed the decision of the Administrative Judge to the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB).

The Decision: Who Gets the Money?

The MSPB agreed with the Office of Personnel Management. In its decision, the MSPB concluded:  “The Slayer Statute does not deprive the murderer of any property rights but prevents his acquisition of additional rights by unlawful and unauthorized means.”

MSPB concluded that Mr. Cross did not receive any additional property because he killed his wife. His wife would have received the government payment if she were still alive. But, because she was already dead when Mr. Cross took his own life, and no other beneficiaries were named with regard to his retirement account, “the lump-sum payment passes to Mr. Cross’s heirs.”

In short, the sons of the man who killed Ms. Orndorff receive the money from the government. There is, of course, the right of appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

Whetzel v. OPM, 2014 MSPB 23

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47