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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, August,9 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 32
Feds extend survivor benefits to same-sex spouses
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Feds extend survivor benefits to same-sex spouses

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

The federal agency that administers benefits for employees of the U.S. government has announced new benefits for same-sex partners of retired federal workers.

In a statement released August 2, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) said same-sex spouses of retired federal employees are now entitled to survivor benefits from their partners' pension plans.

Survivor benefits are pension payments that continue to go to partners of retired employees even after the employee has died.

The survivor benefit option is one of the key features of the federal retirement package. In addition to a lifetime monthly benefit of up to about half of what the retiree earned through federal service, it conveys eligibility to continue health insurance coverage for the life of the survivor.

Previously, OPM had ruled that because of DOMA the agency could not offer any benefits to Gay or Lesbian spouses. That policy was an issue in two lawsuits challenging DOMA - Gill v. OPM and Golinski v. OPM - and was finally reversed after the Supreme Court found Section 3 of DOMA unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court's decision in U.S. v. Windsor, issued in late June of this year, means that OPM 'is now able to extend benefits to Federal employees and annuitants who are legally married to spouses of the same sex, regardless of the employees' or annuitants' states of residency,' the agency said in a Federal Register notice.

FOREIGN WEDDINGS INCLUDED
The OPM will also recognize marriages concluded outside the U.S., just as it does for opposite-sex couples.

'Consistent with OPM's long-standing policy of recognizing the legal foreign marriages of opposite-sex couples for purposes of the retirement benefit programs that OPM administers, OPM will also recognize legal same-sex marriages granted in countries that authorize such marriages, regardless of the employees' or annuitants' states of residency, for purposes of these programs,' OPM said.

OPM has already said that in addition to providing survivor benefits, employees and retirees in same-sex marriages now may cover their spouses and children under federal employee insurance programs, including health insurance, under the same eligibility policies as are in force for opposite-sex spouses.

While eligibility is automatic, employees and retirees are allowed to make enrollment changes through August 26, like switching from self-only coverage to self-and-family coverage, which will now be available to Gay and Lesbian families under the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program. Afterward, they will have to wait until the next regular benefits open season, which starts in November.

The August 2 announcement fleshed out OPM's previous statement that retirees who are in legal same-sex marriages will have two years from the date of the high court's ruling, through June 26, 2015, to choose a survivor benefits plan.

THINGS TO CONSIDER
There is a cost to survivor benefits, however. In its notice, OPM warned that retirees 'should be aware that electing a survivor annuity will require a reduction of his/her annuity to provide the survivor annuity' and that they 'should consider their language carefully before sending OPM written requests regarding survivor benefits for their spouses.'

The Social Security Administration, which provides retirement income to all seniors, says it is working 'to determine how the [Supreme Court's DOMA] decision affects our programs, and to develop appropriate instructions for our personnel. We encourage individuals who believe they may be eligible for Social Security benefits to apply now, to protect against the loss of any potential benefits. We will process these claims as soon as we have finalized our instructions.'

Social Security payments are part of the retirement benefits package for most current federal employees and many recent retirees, although older federal retirees typically worked under a different retirement system that did not include Social Security benefits.

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