fizkes/Getty Images

When Collecting Your Retirement Benefit Means Proving You’re Not Dead

Sometimes, OPM requires proof of life.

When you retire from federal service and begin collecting your hard-earned annuity benefit, the Office of Personnel Management takes responsibility for making sure you get what you’re owed. That includes the unenviable task of also verifying that benefits don’t get paid to people who have died.

This, in turn, sometimes leads OPM to question whether a person listed as living is actually deceased. In these cases, it may surprise you to learn, the burden is on the annuitant to prove they aren’t among the dearly departed.  

OPM’s Retirement Services office distributes annuity payments each month to retirees. That includes a process of verifying that an annuitant meets all of the requirements to receive benefits. One of the requirements, understandably, is that they be among the living. 

Part of the verification process involves using the Treasury Department’s Improper Payments Do Not Pay Initiative, known as the DNP, to detect and prevent unauthorized disbursements of benefits. The problem, according to a recent inspector general audit of OPM’s payment process, is that sometimes a DNP match may be “erroneous, have the wrong date of death, or refer to a person with the same name as a retirement annuitant, but who is not the annuitant.” So OPM checks DNP matches against various websites (such as Google) and online services to try to determine if the annuitant in question has actually passed away.

If Retirement Services does not turn up a death record in this process, they send the annuitant a letter asking them to send a proof of life. If they don’t get a response, they suspend annuity payments until they can verify the “living status” of the retiree, as the IG report puts it.

As you might imagine, receiving a letter putting the burden of proof on you to show you’re not dead can be, to say the least, an unsettling experience, as William Shackleford, president of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, wrote in a recent letter to OPM.

“We have heard from multiple living federal annuitants that they have received letters from OPM RS asking them to return a notarized form confirming their current information—in essence providing a notarized form to prove they are still alive,” Shackleford wrote. As a result, annuity payments to some retirees have been interrupted because they don’t understand or trust the process—or, in the case of older annuitants, because the notarization requirement presents a burden for them. The problem is compounded by the fact that it’s frequently difficult to reach Retirement Services by phone.

“While we do not object to OPM RS’ use of Treasury’s DNP Portal to help reduce improper payments to deceased annuitants, we do not believe it is appropriate for OPM RS to shift the burden to annuitants to prove they are still alive…,” Shackleford wrote.

NARFE wants OPM to reconsider the notarization requirement, and to evaluate whether the costs of ensuring that the dead aren’t getting benefit checks outweigh the benefits. Above all, the organization wants OPM to bear the responsibility for proving that someone has passed on before stopping their benefits.