Survivor Benefits for Families of Civilian Federal Employees and Retirees
Survivor Benefits for Families of Civilian
Federal Employees and Retirees
Specialist in Social Legislation
Domestic Social Policy Division
Federal employees with permanent appointments are eligible for retirement and
disability benefits under either the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) or the
Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS). All federal employees initially hired
into permanent federal employment on or after January 1, 1984, are covered by FERS.
Employees hired before January 1, 1984, are covered by CSRS unless they chose to
switch to FERS during open seasons held in 1987 and 1998. Both FERS and CSRS
provide survivor benefits for spouses and dependent children of employees and retirees.
Survivors who had been participating in the Federal Employees’ Health Benefits
Program (FEHBP) can continue to do so. The federal government pays compensation
to dependent survivors of federal civilian employees who are killed while performing
their duties; however, a survivor eligible for both an annuity under CSRS or FERS and
for survivor compensation cannot receive both.
Death of Current Civilian Federal Employee
Spouse Survivor Benefits. Under CSRS, the surviving spouse of a federal
employee who dies after having completed at least 18 months of service is eligible for an
annuity, provided that the couple had been married for at least nine months or that the
survivor is the parent of a child born of the marriage. The nine-month requirement is
waived if the worker’s death was accidental. A divorced spouse of a federal employee
may be eligible for a survivor benefit if the employee elected a survivor annuity for the
former spouse or under a state court decree of divorce, annulment, or separation.1 The
survivor annuity under CSRS is 55% of the retirement benefit that the deceased employee
had accrued at the time of death, but without any reduction for being under age 55. The
annuity is guaranteed to be no smaller than 55% of the lesser of (1) 40% of the average
1 See CRS Report RS22856, Retirement and Survivor Annuities for Former Spouses of Federal
Employees, by Patrick Purcell.
of the employee’s highest three consecutive years of pay or (2) the annuity that would
result from projecting the employee’s years of service to age 60.
If an employee participating in FERS dies after having completed at least 18 months
of service, but fewer than 10 years of service, his or her spouse is eligible for a lump-sum
survivor benefit equal to one-half of the employee’s annual basic pay plus a lump sum
payment ($28,093 in 2008).2 This benefit can be paid as a single lump-sum, or in equal
installments over 36 months (with interest) at the option of the surviving spouse. If the
employee had at least 10 years of service, the spouse receives a lump sum and an annuity
equal to 50% of the retirement annuity that the deceased employee had earned at the time
of his or her death. Survivor annuities under CSRS and FERS terminate if the surviving
spouse remarries before age 55. If the remarriage ends in death, divorce, or annulment,
the annuity restarts in the same amount.
Child Survivor Benefits. Under CSRS, a monthly annuity is paid to the surviving
children of a deceased employee, as long as they are under age 18 and not married, or
under age 22 if still in school. A child survivor enrolled full-time in school and whose
22nd birthday occurs before July 1 or after August 31 can continue to receive benefits
while enrolled as a student through the following July 1. A surviving child is eligible for
benefits regardless of age if he or she is incapable of self-support because of a physical
or mental disability incurred before age 18. If a deceased federal employee is survived
by a spouse or former spouse who is the biological or adoptive parent of the employee’s
surviving child(ren), each child receives the smallest of these three annual amounts:
!60% of the employee’s high-3 average pay, divided by the number of
! $5,328 (in 2008, indexed annually to the Consumer Price Index), or
!$15,984 (also indexed to the CPI) divided by the number of children.
In most cases, the benefit will be $5,328 per year (indexed to the CPI). If the deceased
employee is not survived by a spouse or former spouse who is the biological or adoptive
parent of the surviving child(ren), then each child receives the smallest of these amounts:
!75% of the employee’s high-3 average pay, divided by the number of
! $6,384 (in 2008, indexed annually to the Consumer Price Index), or
!$19,176 (also indexed to the CPI) divided by the number of children.
In most cases, the benefit will be $6,384. If a married couple dies, both of whom were
federal employees covered by CSRS, each child is eligible for two survivor annuities.
Children of deceased federal employees who were covered by FERS may be eligible
for Social Security benefits, according to the laws governing that program. If the benefit
that the children would have received under CSRS would have been greater than the
Social Security benefit alone, FERS will pay a monthly benefit that in combination with
Social Security will equal the CSRS benefit. In most cases, however, the Social Security
benefit alone will exceed the benefit that would have been payable under CSRS.
2 This amount is indexed annually to the rate of change in the Consumer Price Index (CPI).
Nevertheless, because Social Security survivor benefits end when a child reaches age 18
(or 19 if the child is still in high school), FERS pays a benefit equal to a CSRS benefit for
as long as the child is unmarried, under age 22, and enrolled full-time in post-secondary
Health Insurance for Survivors. Widows, widowers, and unmarried dependent
children under age 22 who survive a deceased federal employee who was enrolled in the
Federal Employees’ Health Benefits Program (FEHBP) may continue to participate in that
program at the same cost as a federal employee if, prior to the employee’s death, these
individuals were covered as family members under the plan.
Death in the Performance of Duty. If the employee’s death resulted from an
injury sustained in the performance of duty, the employee’s surviving spouse and children
are eligible for compensation equal to a percentage of the employee’s monthly pay. This
compensation is not payable concurrently with a survivor annuity under either CSRS or
FERS. A survivor who is entitled to both an annuity under CSRS or FERS and to
survivor compensation must elect one of the two benefits. The compensation payable to
a surviving spouse if there are no children is equal to 50% of the deceased employee’s
final pay. If there are surviving children in addition to the spouse, the compensation is
equal to 60% of pay if there is one child and 75% of pay if there are two or more children.
If there are surviving children but no surviving spouse, the compensation is equal to 40%
of pay for one child plus 15% of pay for each additional child, not to exceed 75% of pay.
If an employee who was killed while performing his or her duty left no surviving
spouse or children, compensation equal to 25% of pay may be paid to one parent if he or
she was wholly dependent on the employee. Compensation of 20% of pay may be paid
to each parent if both were wholly dependent on the employee. If the employee is
survived by a spouse or children, then benefits are paid to the parents on a pro-rated basis
so that the total does not exceed 75% of pay.
If an employee who was killed while performing his or her duty left no surviving
spouse, children, or dependent parents, compensation equal to 20% of pay may be paid
to a brother, sister, grandparent, or grandchild who was wholly dependent on the
employee. If more than one such person was dependent, compensation of 30% of pay
may be paid and divided equally among them. If one or more were partly dependent on
the employee, compensation equal to 10% of pay may be paid and divided equally among
them. If the employee is survived by a spouse, children, or dependent parent, then
benefits are paid to the brothers, sisters, grandparents, or grandchildren on a pro-rated
basis so that the total does not exceed 75% of pay.
The compensation for a surviving spouse is paid for life, unless he or she remarries
before age 55.3 The compensation paid to a surviving child, brother, sister, or grandchild
is paid until the individual marries, reaches age 18 (unless he or she is a full-time student),
or if over age 18 and incapable of self-support, until the person is no longer incapable of
self-support. The compensation paid to a parent or grandparent is paid for life, or until
the individual marries or ceases to be dependent. The maximum monthly pay on which
3 If the widow or widower remarries before age 55, he or she is entitled to receive a lump-sum
payment equal to 24 times the monthly compensation payment he or she had been receiving.
survivor compensation is based cannot exceed 75% of the maximum basic pay for level
GS-15 of the general schedule. The government may pay this compensation as a lump-
sum equal to the present value of all future payments if the monthly payment would be
less than $50, if the beneficiary is about to become a nonresident of the United States, or
if the Secretary of Labor deems it to be in the best interest of the beneficiary to do so.
Funeral Expenses. The surviving spouse or representative of an employee killed
in the performance of his or her duty will be paid the sum of $200 as reimbursement for
the costs of terminating the decedent’s status as a federal employee and a sum not to
exceed $800 for funeral and burial expenses. If the employee’s death occurred away from
home, the Federal Employees’ Compensation Fund will pay the expenses related to
transporting the decedent’s body to his or her last place of residence.
$10,000 Discretionary Payment. Section 651 of P.L. 104-208 authorizes
payment of up to $10,000 to be made by the head of a federal agency at his or her
discretion to the executor of the estate of a federal employee who dies as the result of an
injury sustained while on active duty on or after August 2, 1990. The $200 payment for
administrative expenses and the $800 payment for funeral expenses described above
count against the $10,000 payment authorized by P.L. 104-208.
Death of Retired Civilian Federal Employee
Spouse Survivor Benefits. Married federal employees who retire under either
CSRS or FERS automatically receive a joint and survivor annuity unless both husband
and wife decline it in writing, in which case the worker will receive a single-life annuity.4
Under CSRS, if a worker receives a joint and survivor annuity, the annual benefit is
reduced by an amount equal to 2.5% of the first $3,600 plus 10% of the annuity above that
amount. In return for this reduction, the worker’s spouse is entitled to a survivor annuity
equal to 55% of the worker’s full annuity before the reduction is taken into account.
Alternatively, a worker retiring under CSRS and his or her spouse can elect a smaller
survivor annuity, in which case the worker’s annuity is reduced by 2.5% of the first
$3,600 and 10% of the annuity above this amount, up to the limit that he or she specifies
as the base upon which the survivor benefit is to be calculated.
Under FERS, if a worker receives a joint and survivor annuity, the retiree’s annual
benefit is reduced by an amount equal to 10% of the annuity that would otherwise be paid.
In return for this reduction, the worker’s spouse is entitled to a survivor annuity equal to5
Alternatively, the couple may elect that the survivor benefit is to be based on one-half of
the retiree’s annuity, in which case the retired worker’s annuity is reduced by 5% and the
survivor benefit would be equal to 25% of the retiree’s unreduced annuity. The reduction
in the benefits of workers who elect a joint and survivor annuity is sufficient to cover only
4 To elect a reduced survivor annuity or a single-life annuity requires the written, notarized
consent of both the retired worker and his or her spouse. If the worker cannot obtain the spouse’s
signature, the worker can submit the application to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM)
without it. The OPM then will make a good-faith effort to notify the spouse that the retired
worker has elected a single-life annuity, after which the application can be processed.
5 Under FERS, the spouse of a deceased retiree receives an annuity rather than a lump sum.
about half of the cost of the FERS survivor annuity and less than half of the cost of the
CSRS survivor annuity. Consequently, survivor benefits under both CSRS and FERS are
partially subsidized by the federal government.
If the marriage of a retiree who had elected a joint and survivor annuity ends, his or
her annuity is increased to the full amount payable under a single-life annuity. If the
retired worker marries or remarries after retirement, he or she has a maximum of two
years during which to elect survivor coverage for a new spouse, and the retiree’s annuity
is reduced accordingly. The election for a joint and survivor annuity must be made within
two years of the date of marriage. To elect survivor coverage for a spouse married after
the date of retirement, a lump-sum payment (plus 6% interest) must be made to cover the
period preceding the post-retirement marriage during which no survivor reduction was in
effect.6 This payment is necessary to preserve equity between couples who are married
continuously throughout retirement and those who marry after retiring, because in both
cases the survivor benefit is the same percentage of the retired worker’s annuity.
Child Survivor Benefits. Under both CSRS and FERS, survivor benefits are paid
to children of deceased federal retirees in the same amounts and under the same eligibility
criteria as apply to the children of deceased federal employees. Retired workers who are
the parents of unmarried dependent children who might qualify for child survivor benefits
are not required to take a reduction in their retirement annuities.
Health Insurance for Surviving Spouses and Children. A widow or
widower of a deceased retiree who is eligible for a survivor annuity under either CSRS
or FERS and who was covered under the FEHBP at the time of the retiree’s death can
continue to participate in the program at the same cost as applies to workers and retirees.
The survivor is eligible even if the amount of the survivor annuity is less than the monthly
FEHBP premium, in which case the individual must remit the difference directly to OPM.
A retiree who marries or remarries after retirement can assure that his or her surviving
spouse will be eligible for FEHBP coverage by electing a minimal survivor annuity.
If a retired federal employee has a former spouse to whom a full survivor annuity
was awarded through a state court order, the worker can at retirement (or at the time of
remarriage, if later) entitle his or her current spouse to continue participating in the
FEHBP after the retiree’s death by electing survivor coverage for that spouse even though
the current spouse might receive no survivor annuity as long as the former spouse is living
and receiving the survivor annuity. Unmarried dependent children of a deceased retiree
can continue to participate in the FEHBP until age 22, regardless of student status,
provided that they were covered as family members by the retiree. In certain cases,
coverage can continue for up to 36 months beyond the child’s 22nd birthday.
Insurable Interest Annuities. Both CSRS and FERS allow a retiring employee
to provide survivor benefits to an individual who has an “insurable interest” in the retiree.
An insurable interest exists if the person may reasonably expect to benefit financially
from the retiree continuing to live. For example, a former spouse or a current spouse can
be named as having an insurable interest if a spouse survivor benefit has been provided
6 Under a provision of the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993 (P.L. 103-66), this
payment can be made through a reduction in the retiree’s annuity rather than as a lump sum.
for one or the other. A retiree who provides survivor benefits for someone with an
insurable interest has his or her annuity reduced by 10% plus 5% for each full five years
by which the named beneficiary is younger than the retiree. The total reduction may not
exceed 40%. Under both CSRS and FERS, the survivor benefit paid to the named
beneficiary is 55% of the retiree’s reduced annuity, payable upon the death of the retiree.
Spouse Survivor Benefits under Deferred Retirement. Federal employees
are fully “vested” in (entitled to) a retirement annuity after completing five years of
service. Vested employees who resign from federal employment before they are eligible
to retire can defer receipt of their benefits until they reach the age of eligibility. Under
CSRS, a deferred annuity can begin no earlier than age 62. Under FERS, an unreduced
deferred annuity can start at age 62 for those with 5 to 19 years of service, at 60 for those
with 20 to 29 years of service, or at 56 (increasing to 57 for employees born in 1970 or
later) for those with 30 or more years of service. A reduced deferred FERS annuity is
available at age 55 for those with 10 or more years of service. If the former employee dies
after having begun to receive a retirement annuity, the surviving spouse is eligible for a
survivor annuity under the rules applicable to CSRS or FERS, as described above.
If a former employee who had been covered under CSRS dies before reaching age
62 and commencing his or her deferred annuity, no survivor benefit is paid. Instead, the
surviving spouse receives a refund of the employee’s contributions to the Civil Service
Retirement and Disability Fund.7 If the former employee was covered under FERS, the
surviving spouse may elect to receive an annuity or a lump-sum payment. If a former
employee dies before having begun to receive a deferred annuity, no child survivor
benefits are payable (although they may be payable under Social Security). If the
employee dies before beginning to receive a deferred annuity, the surviving dependent
children are eligible for survivor benefits under CSRS or FERS, as described above.
Cost-of-Living Adjustments. A cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) is made once
each year in January to benefits paid under CSRS and FERS. Under CSRS, the COLA
is equal to the percentage change in the Consumer Price Index in the calendar quarter
ending in the previous September compared to the same quarter one year earlier. Under
FERS, however, COLAs are limited any time that the annual increase in the CPI exceeds
If the CPI rises by 2% to 3%, the FERS COLA is 2%. If the CPI rises by more than 3%,
the FERS COLA is equal to the increase in the CPI minus one percentage point
The Thrift Savings Plan. By filing Form TSP-3, a participant in the Thrift
Savings Plan (TSP) can designate a beneficiary or beneficiaries to whom the balance in
his or her account will be distributed in the event of the employee’s death. If no Form
TSP-3 has been filed, the account balance will be distributed in order of precedence to (1)
to a widow or widower, (2) to a child or children, (3) to a grandchild or grandchildren, (4)
to surviving parents, (5) to an executor previously appointed by the employee, and finally
to the next of kin according to the laws of the state in which the employee resided.
7 Widows of former Members of Congress may receive a CSRS survivor annuity even if the
deferred annuity that had not yet started, if they were married when the Member left Congress.
8 FERS retirees receive no COLAs until age 62 unless they retired because of disability. Survivor
beneficiaries under FERS receive an annual COLA regardless of age.