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Providing for Survivors

By Mike Causey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 1 1996; Page B02

Although many federal workers don't know it, their government jobs allow them to provide their spouses with a lifetime benefit -- indexed to inflation -- if they die on or off the job while still on the payroll.

Unlike a one-time insurance payment, survivor benefits come every month for life. They rise with the cost of living, so they cannot be eroded by inflation, like most pension benefits.

John Elliott, a benefits expert with the Agriculture Department, says the benefits combined with life insurance can protect a federal family from financial catastrophe.

For workers under the old Civil Service Retirement System (pre-1984 hires), Elliott says, a spouse will get an annuity payable for life if the covered employee dies. That's often a surprise to many feds and their spouses, who tend to think of it as a benefit only a retiree can provide.

"To be eligible," he says, "the marriage must have been in effect for at least nine months. This nine-month requirement is waived if the death was accidental or if a child was born of the marriage. There must be no court order awarding full survivor benefits to an ex-spouse. And the employee must have completed 18 months of service."

If the CSRS-covered employee has more than 21 years and 10 months of service at the time of death, the surviving spouse will get 55 percent of an annuity computed under the regular CSRS formula. "This would be based on your high-three-year average salary and length of service to date of death. If you have less than 21 years and 11 months of service when you die, your spouse will get a guaranteed minimum annuity based on the CSRS disability formula," Elliott advises.

"The above computation gives your spouse 55 percent of an annuity amount that is based on 40 percent of your high-three average salary. Or, if less, 55 percent of an annuity amount obtained after increasing your service by the time between your death and the date you would have been age 60, times your high-three." Because it's complicated, run it by your agency retirement counselor to see exactly how your benefit would be computed.

Workers covered by the newer Federal Employees Retirement System, which includes most people hired after 1983, have a much different benefit, although eligibility requirements are similar to those for a CSRS survivor benefit.

"Your surviving spouse will get a basic death benefit amounting to $15,000 increased by all the cost-of-living adjustments [COLAs] since Dec. 1, 1987. Currently, the total of this benefit, plus the COLAs, is $20,734.01," Elliott says. "In addition, your spouse would get 50 percent of your final salary or 50 percent of your high-three average salary, whichever is higher. Your spouse can choose to take the basic death benefit in a lump sum or in 36 monthly installments."

The survivor of someone with at least 10 years of service gets a survivor annuity plus the basic FERS death benefit. That is 50 percent of the annuity calculated as if the employee retired on the date of death. The annuity is based on the high-three average salary multiplied by length of service. Again, Elliott urges employees to check with their agency retirement counselor. The survivor annuity under CSRS and FERS ends if the spouse remarries before age 55. But the annuity is restored if that marriage ends.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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