FEDweek

Federal Benefits Need Special Handling in Divorces

As governmental plans, CSRS and FERS are not subject to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), which governs many aspects of employer-sponsored retirement plans in the private sector and establishes certain rights for the spouses and former spouses of participants in private sector plans.

Retirement benefits for federal employees are governed by chapters 83 (CSRS) and 84 (FERS) of Title 5 of the United States Code. These chapters establish rights of the spouse or former spouse of a current or former federal employee that are similar in many respects to those established by ERISA for private-sector plans; however, there are important differences.

For example, like ERISA, Title 5 requires the default form of benefit under CSRS and FERS to be a joint and survivor annuity, and both ERISA and Title 5 require the written consent of the participant and spouse in order to waive the survivor annuity. On the other hand, while both ERISA and Title 5 allow a pension to be divided between the parties to a divorce, the laws differ with respect to when pension payments to the former spouse can begin.

Under ERISA, a court can require a plan to begin paying benefits to the former spouse when the plan participant has reached the earliest retirement age under the plan, regardless of whether the participant has yet retired. In contrast, even if a state court decree of divorce or annulment has awarded a share of a federal employee’s retirement annuity to a former spouse, Title 5 prohibits payment of any part of a CSRS or FERS annuity to a former spouse until the employee has separated from federal service, is eligible to receive a CSRS or FERS annuity, and has applied for an annuity.

Another difference between ERISA and Title 5 is in the designation of beneficiaries in defined contribution plans. ERISA requires a married participant in a defined contribution plan to secure the written consent of his or her spouse in order to name anyone other than the spouse as the plan beneficiary in the event of the participant’s death. In contrast, federal regulations allow a participant in the Thrift Savings Plan for federal employees to name anyone as the plan beneficiary in the event of the participant’s death “without the knowledge or consent of any person, including his or her spouse.”