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Civil Service Retirement System

Understanding the Civil Service Retirement System

Like all of my blogs, this one was written for my own learning benefit. For a more thorough understanding of the subject matter I direct you to Marshall Willick's website at The civil service in the United States is administered by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). The retirement system is a defined benefit type plan. These plans are essentially annuities, paying a monthly stream of retirement benefits until the death of the retiree. The benefit value is determined by looking at the years of the employees service along with the highest salary realized by that employee.

The civil service retirement system was replaced by the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS) for members who began service after 1984. The most significant difference between the CSRS system and the FERS system is that members of FERS participate in the social security program while members of CSRS did not. Additionally under the FERS system federal employees can participate in a thrift savings plan, which is a defined contribution plan. The CSRS system and the FERS system both provide for survivor annuity benefits unless the spouses opt out of that benefit selection.

Like most retirement pensions, information regarding retirement benefits can be obtained by sending a release to the OPM's information office. Alternatively this information can be released by way of subpoena submitted to the OPM.

Be advised that as a practitioner you won't be submitting a QDRO to divide a FERS or CSRS defined benefit pension. Remember that QDROs should be submitted to divide qualified retirement plans. Those qualified plans are private pensions governed by ERISA. ERISA does not apply to federal plans. Although the OMP may in fact process and order called QDRO and using QDRO language it is better practice to use the appropriate language for dividing this type of plan. The proper order for dividing these federal retirements is a Court Order Acceptable for Processing (COAP)

Death benefits are in the form of a survivor annuity are available to former spouses of deceased members of CSRS or FERS. A prior spouse is entitled to this treatment she is designated the beneficiary in the divorce decree. After divorce to remain eligible the former spouse must not remarry prior to reaching the age of 55 years.

Federal employees receive Federal Employees Health Benefits (FEHB). A former spouse is eligible to receive FEHB as long as such spouse was already covered by FEHB for at least one day in the preceding 18 months and as long as the former spouse applies for continuation of those benefits within 60 days following the divorce. In addition in order to be eligible to continue receiving the former spouse must have been awarded an interest in the retiree's annuity. Such former spouse will lose this eligibility for FEHB if he or she remarries prior to reaching the age of 55. Spouses who are not eligible for these FEHB benefits will still qualify for a COBRA like program for a period of 3 years following the divorce.

Federal employees qualify for a defined contribution plan called the Thrift Savings plan. FERS employees get matching federal contributions up to a specific level. Since the TSP is a defined contribution plan, cash plan, there are no survivorship benefits available from this type of plan. The TSP board is quite flexible but does have some of its own processing language. For instance you will be submitting a Retirement Benefits Court Order (RBCO) to divide this plan.

The TSP will honor any order that has a clearly determinable entitlement to be paid, and provides for payment to someone other than the plan participant. Be advised these payments could be directed to the non-member spouse's attorney for the purposes of satisfying attorney's fees.

Categories: Family Law