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Divorce Decrees

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It’s spring, and love is in the air. I wish I could say that love and marriage last forever, but sometimes they don’t. Divorces happen, and they can affect retirement benefits.

Here is a recent email I received from a retiree under the Civil Service Retirement System who is divorced from a current federal employee under CSRS Offset . This means the current employee is eligible for retirement under the same rules as other CSRS employees, but while she is employed, she is required to pay into Social Security. That reduces her CSRS contributions and ultimately will cause a cut (that’s the “offset” part) to her CSRS retirement when she qualifies for Social Security after she retires.

Here’s what the retiree wrote:

In all the retirement classes I took, and in my attempts to review Office of Personnel Management materials, and emails to OPM, I have not been able to learn what the process is when OPM contacts a person who is due court- ordered benefits.

OPM has told me that the court order that I submitted 16 years ago is acceptable for processing. However, OPM will not tell me the process by which I am contacted once my ex-spouse retires. … Does OPM notify me (given that the court order is on file)? Is it when my ex-spouse retires? When they are determining benefits for my ex-spouse? Or once the final benefits have been determined (including the apportionment)?

Here’s what I told him:

As the ex-spouse, it’s up to you to apply for retirement benefits that were awarded to you as a result of your final divorce agreement. OPM will agree to use what is known as a “Court Order Acceptable for Processing” as the basis to divide retirement benefits and award survivor annuities under CSRS and the Federal Employees Retirement System. Private sector pension plans and state government plans use a Qualified Domestic Relations Order to perform the function of dividing retirement benefits, but OPM does not recognize QDROs.

Here’s more information from OPM on Court-Ordered Benefits for Former Spouses. It includes the following points:

  • A court order can apportion or divide a CSRS or FERS benefit as a result of a divorce, legal separation, or annulment of marriage. The court order must expressly direct OPM to pay a portion of the monthly CSRS or FERS benefits. The spouse’s share must be stated as a fixed amount, a percentage or a fraction of the annuity, or by a formula whose value is readily apparent from the face of the order and information in OPM’s files. The amount cannot exceed the amount payable to the retiree after deductions for taxes and insurance.
  • Payments to a former spouse from a retiree’s annuity end with the retiree’s death. For the former spouse to receive payments after the retiree’s death, the retiree must elect, or the court order must provide for, a survivor annuity.
  • OPM authorizes payments in accordance with clear, specific, and express provisions of court orders acceptable for processing under the applicable provisions of law and regulation. If the order is not acceptable, the parties must return to state court to seek any necessary modifications.
  • Upon determining an order is acceptable, OPM will inform the former spouse that the court order is acceptable, the date when spousal benefits begin to accrue (if known), and the monthly benefit and formula used to compute it. If he or she disagrees, a clarifying court order must be obtained. OPM also will inform the employee, retiree, or other interested party that the former spouse has applied for benefits;, the court order is acceptable for processing;, the date payment will commence (if appropriate);, the amount and formula. If an individual contests the validity or amount, he or she must submit a court order invalidating or amending the one the former spouse submitted. The former spouse should file the above information as soon as possible. Do not wait for the employee to retire, even if the spousal benefit begins years in the future. The former spouse and employee will be notified of the above information after the order is reviewed.
  • A former spouse must apply in writing to be eligible for a court-awarded portion of an employee’s annuity. No special form is required. If the former spouse is incompetent, a representative can apply on his or her behalf. Unless a court order is already on file at OPM, the application letter must be accompanied by a court-certified copy of the order directing payment from the employee’s or retiree’s retirement benefit, along with any other documents issued as part of the court action.

(Image via Mincemeat /Shutterstock.com)

Tammy Flanagan is the senior benefits director for the National Institute of Transition Planning Inc., which conducts federal retirement planning workshops and seminars. She has spent 25 years helping federal employees take charge of their retirement by understanding their benefits.

For more retirement planning help, tune in to "For Your Benefit," presented by the National Institute of Transition Planning Inc. live on Federal News Radio on Mondays at 10 a.m. ET on WFED AM 1500 in the Washington-metro area. Archived shows are available on NITPInc.com.

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