Thousands of spouses of government workers who retired after Oct. 31, 1974 may now be able to get a monthly survivor benefit equal to 55 percent of their mate's annuity--even if their husband or wife failed to provide it. It's all the result of an agreement last week between the American Federation of Government Employes and Office of Personnel Management.

The background: Government retirees have the option of providing a survivor benefit, by taking a reduction in their monthly annuity. When they do, they get a smaller pension. If they decline to buy a survivor benefit and die, their spouse is not eligible for any portion of their pension. Formerly, retirees were told that by electing a survivor benefit, their monthly annuity would be reduced forever, even if they outlived the spouse for whom the benefit was intended.

The law was changed in 1974.

It permitted a retiree who elected a survivor benefit to have his full annuity restored if he outlived his spouse.

But the Civil Service Commission (now the OPM) failed to change the survivor election forms to reflect the 1974 law. So a lot of married federal workers (many of them women who thought they would outlive their husbands) elected not to take an annuity reduction to provide for a survivor benefit.

The AFGE took the government to court. The union argued that Uncle Sam's failure to include the 1974 changes on the survivor benefit form had deceived many retirees, and denied benefits to many survivors.

As a result of the suit, OPM settled out of court with AFGE lawyer Joseph Henderson and with Edith J. Fierst, a private attorney on the case.

In effect, OPM agreed to correct and update language on the preretirment survivor benefit forms to advise retirees that they could provide a survivor benefit (by taking a reduced annuity) and then, if their spouse died first, resume getting the full amount of the annuity due them.

The agreement means that many survivors of deceased federal retirees may be able to qualify for a survivor benefit now IF they can convince OPM that their spouse did not provide a survivor benefit because he or she was misled by the survivor benefit form.

This also means that every married person who retired after Oct. 31, 1974 will have the opportunity to provide full survivor benefits now, if they did not do so when they retired. (Some people provided a partial survivor benefit, often too little now to cover even the cost of health insurance premiums.)

OPM will send out a special form that will include a Survivor Annuity Amendment Request, advising people of the change. It should be in the mail shortly. Forms will be mailed to a retiree's last known address.

Watch for it!

The forms will give you--if you were married and retired after Oct. 31, 1974--the chance to provide a full survivor benefit for your spouse.

If you are the widow or widower of a federal worker who retired after that date, you can apply for a survivor benefit even if your husband or wife didn't provide for a full benefit.

Survivor benefits, like the annuities of federal retirees, are adjusted annually to reflect the cost of living. Last month retirees and survivors--more than 100,000 in this area--got an 8.7 percent adjustment.

For details, call AFGE attorney Joseph Henderson at Re 7-8700, ext. 425.

This is a big, big deal.

For many married retirees it means a second chance to provide a survivor annuity.

For many survivors of federal workers it will mean the chance to get a monthly benefit that can be a lifesaver.