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Survivor Benefits: Federal Employees

The federal government offers several programs to help meet the needs of survivors of civil servants. During their life, the Deceased was able to elect one of two retirement plans: the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) or the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS). Each system provides slightly different benefits for survivors.

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Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) Survivor Benefits

The following is a brief summary of the CSRS and may not apply to every survivor.
When a civil servant enrolled in the CSRS plan passes away, the eligible survivors––including former spouses and dependent children––can receive a monthly annuity payment. (Lump sum payments are not available.) To be eligible, the Deceased must have elected to have survivor benefits and must have been married to the widow/widower for at least nine months prior to death. The nine month requirement does not apply if the widow/widower had a child with the deceased or if their death was accidental.
Some survivors can receive both Social Security and CSRS Survivor benefits, but the CSRS benefit may be reduced. Employment does not affect whether or not an annuity benefit is received or its amount, subject to one exception: “If you are a widower whose annuity is based on the service of a Federal employee who died before retiring and before January 8, 1971, your annuity will stop if you accept employment that enables you to support yourself.” (Source: Information for Survivor Annuitants, OPM, 1999). For more information, please contact the United States Office of Personnel Management Retirement Operations Center (OPM).

Children cannot be prevented from receiving CSRS payments and will receive them even if the surviving spouse is not receiving payments. (Children must be unmarried, under 18 and be considered dependent.) Other provisions effecting children:

  • If the child is adopted, they can receive the same benefit as long as they fulfill the same requirements as any other child.   
  • Children can continue to receive payments from age 18 to 22 if they are enrolled in full-time post-secondary education and remain unmarried.
  • Children over the age of 18 who are disabled and cannot support themselves are also eligible if the disability occurred before the death of the Deceased.
  • A child whose benefit was revoked due to marriage cannot regain the benefit unless the marriage is annulled. Divorce or death does not entitle them to reinstatement.
  • If the annuity was terminated due to a loss of full-time student status and the child returns to school full-time before the age of 22, the benefit may be reinstated.

Full information about CSRS survivor benefits should be obtained from the United States Office of Personnel Management Retirement Operations Center (OPM) at 1-888-767-6738.

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When Do Survivor Benefits Begin?

Depending upon your role in the Deceased’s life, benefits vary by relationship:

  • Widows/Widowers > Benefits begin on whichever day is later: 
    • The day after the death or 
    • The day an entitlement from the death of a previous spouse ends
  • Insurable Interest Annuitants > The day after the death
  • Former Spouse Awarded Annuity by the Court > The later of: 
    • The day after the death or 
    • The first day of the second month after the court order is received
  • Former spouse who applied based on special provisions in the Civil Service Retirement Spouse Equity Act of 1984 > The day after the death
  • Former spouse eligible because of the Deceased’s choice> The later of:
    • The day after death or
    • The day that entitlement from the death of a former spouse ends

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What Can Affect a Survivor’s Rights to an Annuity Benefit While They Are Receiving It?

  • Death of a survivor annuitant
  • A reduction or termination of a former spouse’s annuity
  • Marriage of dependent children
  • Widows or widowers who remarry before age 55 (unless married to the Deceased for at least 30 years)
  • A change in post-secondary education enrollment status for dependent children over 18
  • A change of employment or health status in a dependent child over 18 who receives a benefit due to a disability
  • Change in payee or representative selected for a minor incompetent survivor

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Additional Information:

Survivor annuities always end when the survivor passes away. If the benefit was granted based on a court order to a former or surviving spouse, the benefit will end when its terms have been fulfilled. Benefits to widows or widowers end if they remarry before age 55 and if they were not married to the Deceased for at least 30 years. The survivor’s benefit can be reinstated if the remarriage ends in divorce. If the surviving spouse remarries after age 55, the benefits continue. Former spouses whose marriage to the survivor ended due to divorce, and whose benefit ended due to remarriage are never eligible to have the benefit restored.
Survivor annuity payments are subject to both federal and state taxes. The United States Office of Personnel Management Retirement Operations Center (OPM) withholds federal taxes at the three withholding allowances rate unless informed otherwise. Let them know if you need to adjust withholdings to avoid under or overpaying taxes. The annuity may also be claimed as income for legal obligations such as child support or alimony. Similarly, if funds are owed to the federal government either by you or the Deceased, annuity payments can be withheld.
A general power of attorney is insufficient to cash someone else’s annuity checks. You must have a specific power of attorney called SF232 in order to do so. Other issues such as guardianship or conservatorship [internal link to conservatorship section] can be taken care of by speaking or writing to the OPM office. The checks should be returned to OPM with an explanation and a request to have the guardian or conservator listed as payee with a copy of the court order.

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Health Benefits

If the survivor was enrolled in the “self and family” health benefit plan, health insurance will continue for the survivor and their family members. Enrollment will be transferred into the survivor’s name and premiums will be deducted from the annuity. If the survivor is the only person eligible for health benefits after the death of the Deceased, coverage will be changed to “self only” which is less expensive.

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Health Benefits: Former Spouse Coverage

Coverage is for life unless you remarry or cancel your enrollment. As with the annuity payments, if the remarriage ends, you are then eligible to receive benefits again.

According to the United States Office of Personnel Management Retirement Operations Center (OPM):
Former spouses may be eligible for health benefits coverage under the spouse equity provisions of Federal Employees Health Benefits (FEHB) Program if:

  • You currently receive or have future entitlement to a former spouse survivor annuity or a portion of the former employee’s retirement benefits,
  • You were covered as a family member in an FEHB plan at any time during the 18 months preceding the termination of your marriage,
  • Your marriage ended while your former spouse was actually employed or retired from the Federal Government, and
  • You have not remarried before age 55 or you remarried before age 55 but were married for 30 years or more.

Former spouses have 60 days to apply for benefits once they have been notified that they are entitled to them or if the marriage is terminated. If you are a former spouse receiving an annuity or your marriage ended after the employee retired, you must apply to the government for health benefit coverage. The cost of the premium is also withheld from your annuity, unless the annuity doesn’t cover the full cost in which case you can change to a less expensive plan or simply pay the excess fees.

In addition, the OPM states:

  • If requirements for coverage aren’t met, survivors may be eligible for coverage up to 36 months under the Temporary Continuation of Coverage provisions of the health benefit law.
  • If you have eligibility for coverage as an employee or family member under other enrollment, your coverage as a former spouse can be suspended.
  • Similarly, if coverage as an employee or family member is lost, benefits as a former spouse can be resumed.

Former spouse benefits will continue for life unless you:

  • Lose your right to the survivor annuity
  • Cancel your enrollment, or
  • Fail to pay the cost of enrollment by the due date assuming payments aren’t withdrawn from your annuity.

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Coverage for Children

Children are also eligible for health coverage as long as they meet the requirements for dependent children. Similar to other programs:

  • The child’s benefit lasts until age 22 unless married; however, the child does not have to be a full-time student to receive the health benefit.
  • If a child is disabled or incapacitated due to a disability that happened before they turned 22, they can continue to receive benefits beyond the age of 22. If eligibility is lost, the coverage will continue for 31 days so that new coverage can be obtained.
  • Children can also apply for a temporary continuation of coverage if they become ineligible for up to 36 months. Premiums must still be paid and the government does not cover any of those costs.

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Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS) Survivor Benefits

FERS survivor benefits provide a basic employee death benefit and/or monthly annuity payments. This annuity is subject to state and federal taxes as well as debts owed to any private individual or the government. Facts about the benefit:

  • FERS’ Basic Employee Death Benefit is paid to the widow/widower of a deceased family member who died “in service” as long as they completed 18 months of “creditable civilian service.”
    • The benefit is 50% of the Deceased’s final salary, or average salary if higher, and a lump sum adjusted for inflation. (The sum in 2006 was $23,386.98. Check with the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to get the current amount.)
    • This benefit is either paid in one lump sum or in payments over 36 months.
    • Remarriage does not affect the eligibility for this benefit. 
  • Both the monthly survivor annuity and eligibility are similar to those in the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) plan:
    • The deceased must have worked for the federal government for at least 10 years in order for their spouse, former spouse or children to be eligible to receive the annuity payments.
    • The benefits are revoked for the same reasons as in the CSRS plan.
  • Unlike the CSRS plan, however, the FERS plan has an additional annuity available for survivors of deceased retirees. Eligibility requirements include:
    • The deceased must have completed at least 5 years of service and at least one continuous full year of service.
    • The survivor must be under 60 and be eligible for social security benefits as the widow/widower of the Deceased.

Please Note: There are other specific guidelines for FERS survivor benefits; contact the Office of Personnel Management’s (OPM) Retirement Operations Center at 1-888-767-6738 to learn more.

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The Bottom Line

The CSRS and FERS retirement plans provide multiple continuing benefits for survivors. The plan applicable to you is reliant upon the type of plan the Deceased chose and whether or not they elected to make payments to their insurance for survivor benefits. There are specific limitations placed on many aspects of the plan, so it’s important to be fully informed about what conditions apply and how that may impact your eligibility for certain benefits. All of this can seem confusing, so don’t hesitate to contact the OPM (1-888-767-6738) with any questions or concerns.

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How to Find out More Information about Survivor Benefits

  • The United States Department of Veteran’s Affairs (VA): 1-800-827-1000 www.va.gov

  • Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs (OWP): 1-866-4-USA-DOL  www.dol.gov

  • Defense Finance and Accounting Service (DFAS): 1-800-321-1080 www.dfas.mil

  • Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA): 1-800-321-1080  www.ojp.usdoj.gov/BJA/

  • Social Security Administration: 1-800-772-1213 www.ssa.gov

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