Two Years Does Not Mean Three-and-a-Half Years

In yet another situation where a retired federal employee missed the deadline for electing a survivor annuity for his new wife, she ends up with nothing.

The appeals court has declined to upset the decision of the Office of Personnel Management, upheld by the Merit Systems Protection Board, that this widow is not eligible to receive a survivor annuity because her husband waited too long and actually failed to make the election she claims he intended. (Williams v. Office of Personnel Management CAFC No. 2015-3021 (nonprecedential) 5/6/15)

Richard Lewis was a retired federal employee when he was remarried to Williams in January 2010. He quickly got in touch with OPM to put his new wife on his government health insurance policy. When OPM acknowledged this request it informed Lewis that he could elect a survivor annuity benefit for his new wife, but he must do so within two years of the wedding date. If he did not make the election, OPM went on to explain, the new wife would not get health benefits once he died. Three and a half years later, Lewis designated his wife as the beneficiary of his benefits on his death. Several months later Richard died and his wife applied for benefits. OPM denied the request since Lewis had not made his election for a survivor annuity within the required two-year period; in fact, he made no such election at all. (pp. 2-3)

Williams argued to the appeals court that her husband had submitted a beneficiary designation, living will, and last will and testament, all benefitting her and therefore entitling her to all of her husband’s civil service benefits. She pointed out that OPM had acknowledged receiving her husband’s designation of beneficiary, and by not granting her these benefits, OPM has created a hardship for her.

Expressing its “great sympathy” to Williams for her situation, the court rules that it must sustain MSPB’s decision. Mr. Lewis had a finite period of time to submit his request to OPM in writing, OPM told him very explicitly about the two-year requirement, and he failed to do it. As for the forms her husband did submit some three and a half years later, they did not support a “clear intent to elect a survivor annuity for Williams…” since the form states on its face it does not “affect rights of survivors for annuity benefits after the annuitant’s death.” (p. 4)

In short, this widow has no recourse. Her husband failed to follow through and she now lives with the substantial economic consequences—no survivor annuity and no government health insurance.

Williams v. OPM (2015-3021)

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.