Filing Delay Leads to Loss of Federal Death Benefits

Even though a spouse of forty years was entitled to her husband’s federal death benefits, her estate could not claim them when the widow died before she was able to sign the paperwork.

A recent court decision underscores that delay in acting to claim federal benefits can cause a family to lose out on those benefits. (Devlin v. Office of Personnel Management (CAFC No. 2014-3018, 9/12/14))

The Devlins were married over forty years. When Mr. Devlin died, his wife clearly was entitled to his federal employee death benefits (in the Office of Personnel Management vernacular, the “Basic Employee Death Benefits” or “BEDB”). Before Mrs. Devlin could sign the necessary forms to claim the benefits, she died.  Her estate filed the forms and claimed the BEDB.

OPM denied the application submitted by the estate since Mrs. Devlin had not submitted her claim before her death. The estate appealed to the Merit Systems Protection Board but encountered the same roadblock. (Opinion pp. 1-2)

The appeals court now agrees with OPM and MSPB, refusing to order that the death benefit be paid to Mrs. Devlin’s estate. The court’s opinion points out that the law “does not clearly answer the question of whether a surviving spouse’s estate may apply for BEDB on her behalf….There is no indication in the statute whether Congress intended to limit entitlement to BEDB to only the surviving ‘widow or widower’ or to also include the surviving spouse’s estate.” (p. 3)

The court therefore turns to the implementing OPM regulations. It concludes that while a representative may file for the benefit, it must do so on behalf of a living person. Therefore an estate may not file for the benefit. Since OPM’s interpretation if “reasonable and not contrary to the plain meaning” of the law, it must stand.

Devlin v. OPM (2014-3018)

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.