Under the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) and Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS), retiring employees can elect to have their annuities reduced to provide survivor benefits for a current or former spouse or for certain other persons. See Chapter 3, Section 4, for information about the types of survivor annuities, benefits for children, death benefits when no one is eligible for a survivor annuity, and how to apply for retirement and survivor benefits; see Chapter 3, Section 6 for information about survivor benefits for disability retirees who die. (Note: Survivors of employees who die in service after having met certain minimum service requirements also are eligible to receive certain benefits; see Benefits Upon Death in Service in Chapter 8, Section 4). OPM publications providing detailed policies and procedures in various situations are at www.opm.gov/retirement-services/publications-forms/pamphlets.
Under the June 26, 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision in United States v. Windsor (133 S. Ct. 2675), “legally married” same-sex spouses, meaning those married in a jurisdiction (including in foreign countries) that recognizes such marriages qualify, regardless of place of residence. As of that date, the decision invalidated the Defense of Marriage Act provision that had restricted federal retirement survivor benefits to only a marriage of a man and a woman. It allowed for survivor benefit elections from that date by newly retiring employees in same-sex marriages (note: it also triggered a two-year election opportunity for those in same-sex marriages who were retired at the time of the court’s decision and who had been prohibited from making such an election). Eligibility to provide for survivor benefits does not apply to domestic partnerships, civil unions, or other arrangements not formally recognized as a marriage. Nor does it apply to common law marriages.
Survivors of retirees (and of active employees) also have certain rights under Social Security (see Chapter 3, Section 9), the Federal Employees Compensation Act (see Chapter 5, Section 5), the Thrift Savings Plan (see Chapter 6, Section 4), and government-sponsored insurance benefit programs (see Chapter 2).
Changing the Survivor Election for Your Spouse After Retirement
If you are married at retirement, you may change your decision not to provide a survivor annuity or you may increase a survivor annuity amount elected, but you must make a payment (see below) if you do not do so within 30 days after the date of your first regular monthly payment. Your new election must be made in writing (Standard Form 2801 for CSRS, 3107 for FERS) to: Office of Personnel Management, Retirement Operations Center, P.O. Box 45. Boyers, PA 16017-0045. The forms are available by writing to that address, calling (888) 767-6738 or at www.opm.gov/forms.
Your first regular monthly payment is the first annuity payment payable on a recurring basis (other than an estimated payment or an adjustment payment) after OPM has computed the regular rate of annuity payable and has paid the first regular annuity amount.
If you change your election to anything less than the maximum survivor benefit, you must get your spouse’s consent to the election, in writing, or request that OPM waive the spousal consent requirement if the spouse’s whereabouts cannot be determined.
Beyond that initial period, you can only change your election, in writing, within 18 months after the beginning date of your annuity. However, if you make that change in that time, you must pay: a deposit representing the difference between the reduction for the new survivor election and the original survivor election; plus a percentage of your annual annuity. Under FERS, this percentage is 24.5 percent of your annual annuity (at retirement) if you are changing from no survivor benefit to a full (50 percent) survivor benefit, and 12.25 percent if you are changing from none to a partial (25 percent) benefit or from a partial benefit to a full benefit. Under CSRS, this percentage is 24.5 percent of the amount of the increase from the original base to the new survivor base. That increase can be in any amount up to a full (55 percent) survivor annuity. Interest on the deposit must also be paid, chargeable at the same rate used for other retirement system deposits and redeposits (see the Interest Rates table in Chapter 3, Section 3). The election should be filed at the address above.
Electing Survivor Benefits for a Spouse Acquired After Retirement
If you marry after retirement (including a same-sex marriage in a jurisdiction that recognizes such marriages, regardless of whether you afterward reside in such a jurisdiction), you can elect a reduced annuity to provide a survivor annuity for your spouse, but only if you request the benefit within two years of the date of the marriage.
To be eligible for a survivor benefit in this circumstance, the spouse must have been married to you for at least nine months before your death, or, if married less than nine months, be the parent of a child born to the marriage, or your death must have been accidental. You may elect either a full survivor annuity or a partial survivor annuity. (Note: If you remarry the same person you were married to at retirement and that person consented to either no survivor annuity or a partial survivor annuity, you cannot elect a survivor annuity greater than the amount provided in your original election.)
There will be two reductions in your annuity if you elect to provide the survivor benefit. One will be the standard reduction to provide the survivor benefit; the reduction depends on whether you have elected to provide a full survivor annuity or a partial survivor annuity (see General Types of Survivor Annuities in Chapter 3, Section 4). The reduction to provide the survivor benefit will be eliminated if your marriage ends.
The other reduction in your annuity is a permanent actuarial reduction to pay the survivor benefit deposit. The deposit equals the difference between the new annuity rate and the annuity paid to you for each month since retirement, plus 6 percent interest. The reduction is determined by dividing the amount of the deposit by an actuarial factor for your age on the date your annuity is reduced to provide the survivor benefit. The actuarial reduction will not be eliminated from your annuity if your marriage ends. For more information on actuarial reductions, see Chapter 3, Section 7.
A request for information about survivor annuity benefits or signed, written elections of survivor benefits should include the retiree’s full name and CSA number, should include a copy of the marriage certificate, and should be sent to Office of Personnel Management, Retirement Operations Center, P.O. Box 45, Boyers, PA, 16017-0045.
See Chapter 2 for information about coverage for a spouse who becomes newly eligible under insurance programs, including options for you to change your enrollment in health insurance and dental and vision insurance on the basis of experiencing a qualifying life event. You further may wish to change your beneficiary designations for life insurance, lump-sum retirement death benefits, and the Thrift Savings Plan. The marriage will not make your spouse the beneficiary under those programs if you previously designated the benefits to someone else and do not change the designation.
Electing Survivor Benefits for a Former Spouse if Your Marriage Terminates After Retirement
If your marriage terminates after retirement, you can elect a reduced annuity to provide a survivor annuity for your former spouse, but only if you contact OPM to request the benefit within two years of the date of the termination of the marriage. You may elect either a full survivor annuity or a partial survivor annuity. However, if you were married to that individual at retirement and he or she consented to either no survivor annuity or a partial survivor annuity, you cannot elect a survivor annuity greater than the amount provided in your original election. The same reductions are applied as those for a spouse acquired after retirement.
For more information on survivor benefits for former spouses, see Chapter 7, Section 2.
Changing an Insurable Interest Annuity Election for a Current Spouse to a Regular Survivor Annuity Election
If a former spouse’s court-ordered survivor annuity will prevent your current spouse from receiving a survivor annuity that is sufficient to meet his or her anticipated needs, you may elect an insurable interest annuity for your current spouse at retirement. (See Chapter 3, Section 3 for information about insurable interest annuities.) If the former spouse later loses entitlement to the court-ordered survivor annuity for one of the reasons described below, you can request that the reduction in your annuity to provide the insurable interest annuity be converted to the regular survivor annuity reduction. Your current spouse would then be entitled to the regular survivor annuity.
Termination of the Reduction in Your Annuity to Provide a Survivor Benefit
Current Spouse—The reduction in your annuity to provide a survivor annuity for your current spouse stops if your marriage ends because of death, divorce, or annulment.
Former Spouse—The reduction in your annuity to provide a survivor annuity for a former spouse stops if the former spouse dies, if the former spouse remarries before reaching age 55, or under the terms of the court order that required you to provide the survivor annuity for the former spouse when you retired. (Modifications to the court order issued after you retire do not affect the former spouse survivor annuity.)
Insurable Interest—The reduction in your annuity to provide an insurable interest annuity stops if the person you name to receive the insurable interest annuity dies or if the person you name is your current spouse and you change your election because a former spouse has lost entitlement to a survivor annuity. The reduction also ends if, after you retire, you marry the insurable interest beneficiary and elect to provide a spousal survivor annuity for that person. If you marry someone other than the insurable interest beneficiary after you retire and elect to provide a survivor annuity for your spouse, you may elect to cancel the insurable interest reduction at that time.