The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) does not permit a separate interest approach when assigning benefits to a former spouse. Only a shared payment approach is permitted. This means that the former spouse must wait until the employee retires to begin receiving their assigned portion of benefits and those benefits are payable over the life of the employee. This requires a post-retirement joint and survivor election in order to ensure a lifetime stream of income for the former spouse.

The Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) and Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS) are not subject to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). This means that there is neither a Qualified Pre-retirement Survivor Annuity (QPSA) nor a Qualified Joint and Survivor Annuity (QJSA) under these plans. Instead, the survivorship rights of a former spouse are secured differently.

Federal Plan Survivorship Lingo

When a Court Order Acceptable for Processing (COAP) is prepared for CSRS or FERS, it can award the former spouse with a “former spouse survivor annuity”. When this occurs, the order also awards a corresponding share of the “basic employee death benefit” unless the order expressly provides otherwise. These are the terms that could be compared to the ERISA concepts of QJSA and QPSA, respectively. In other words, by awarding to the former spouse a portion of post-retirement survivorship, you are automatically assigning a corresponding share of a pre-retirement survivor benefit.

“Former spouse” is defined as follows by the Office of Personnel Management:

In connection with a court order awarding a former spouse survivor annuity, “former spouse” means a living person who was married for at least 9 months to an employee or retiree who performed at least 18 months of civilian service creditable under CSRS or FERS, and whose marriage to the employee or retiree was terminated prior to the death of the employee or retiree.

Notice that the definition refers several times to “an employee or retiree”. These terms are important and reveal that former spouse survivorship exists in limited scenarios.

When A Former Spouse Receives Survivorship

A former spouse will receive survivorship if:

  • Former spouse does not remarry before 55 and employee dies while actively employed
  • Former spouse does not remarry before 55 and employee dies after commencing benefits

A former spouse will NOT receive survivorship if:

  • Former spouse remarries before age 55 (unless the parties have been married for 30 or more years)
  • Former spouse does not remarry before 55 but employee terminates employment and dies prior to retirement

We have experts available to help you with federal plan survivorship issues.  We have extensive experience with these plans and can guide you through the process of safely securing your client’s benefits.  Call us today at (844) 721-6500.