Alma Anderson was married 36 years to a former civil service employe, before they were divorced three years ago. In the property settlement, her former husband specifically stated that he wanted her to receive his civil service survivor's benefits. Five months after he remarried, he died, leaving his first wife with an empty promise.
The average widow or widower of a federal annuitant receives $440 a month, according to Linda Itner of the House Post Office and Civil Service Committee. But because the law stipulates that survivors' benefits go to the spouse of at least one year, and makes no provision for it to be assigned to a former spouse, Mrs. Anderson, in addition to the second wife, received nothing.
Mrs. Anderson's alimony stopped upon her ex-husband's death and she and her disabled son have been living off her suplemental security income payments of $284.30, his general relief of $214 a month and food stamps. She says she has been able to hold onto her home in Springfield only because Fairfax County gives property tax relief to people over 65 with incomes under $15,000.
"I was to get all the survivors benefits," she says. "I didn't know the federal government wouldn't allow it. It was unbelievable." She says she had not worked since 1941 and was in no way qualified for a self-supporting job.
"I was totally ignorant. I thought divorcing a federal employe would be just like divorcing everyone else."
Florence Foss, of Rockville, was married 14 years and bore three children before she and her husband, a civil service employe, divorced. He then married twice more before his death two years ago. Had he been covered under Social Security, his first wife would have received spousal benefits upon his death, since they had been married at least 10 years. But because he was covered under civil service annuity plans, she received nothing.
Foss, 52, faces years of work before she will be eligible for her own pension benefits. The 14 years she spent making a home and raising children count nothing toward her retirement. "By being unwilling to count the years women worked as homemakers, they're extending the work life of a woman far beyond the work life of a man," she says.
Last summer, Foss, Anderson and a small group of other women who are married to or divorced from civil service employes began meeting to chart a course for changing the way they are treated under the civil service retirement system. Following in the footsteps of Foreign Service, Central Intelligence Agency and military wives, they want to stake a claim to part of their husbands' annuities and to survivors benefits in case of divorce. They also want to remain eligible for group medical coverage and want the law changed so that civil servants can choose to have their survivors benefits go to former spouses as part of divorce settlements.
Military, CIA and Foreign Service couples, whose pension plans are separate from the civil service, can now do that as a result of recent legislation. A congressional subcommittee is just beginning to draft legislation on the matter for the civil service.
Congress and state courts have moved in the past decade toward recognizing marriage as an economic partnership, in which the homemaker has made a contribution. As a result of congressional action over the past four years, pensions of military, CIA, and Foreign Service officers can be divided by state courts as part of property settlements.
Both Foreign Service and CIA employes must now get their spouses' consent before waiving or lowering survivors benefits in favor of larger annuity payments while they are alive. Previously, the government employe could elect not to provide a survivor's benefit for his spouse, without ever informing the spouse of the decision. That is still the case with the military.
The federal government is the nation's largest employer, and the civil service, with some 2.7 million employes and a million annuitants, is the last major category of federal employes whose annuity and survivors benefits need to be adjusted so that the spouses' investment in the marital partnership is protected in divorce.
It is a sad commentary on the system that instead of survivors benefits Alma Anderson, age 66, got SSI and food stamps. "It's probably too late for me," she says. "I found out the hard way."
Most of the legislation reforming pensions and survivors benefits has not been retroactive. But if legislation doesn't include retroactivity for women such as Anderson who received survivors benefits in property settlements, it would be an even sadder commentary, indeed.