Posted on Friday, 19th May 2023 by

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Few are prepared for the delays a spouse and heirs will experience after applying for an annuitant’s death benefits. I recently reviewed and updated our estate plans and contacted the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to better understand the process.

The closer I get to my expiration date, the more time I put into providing additional comprehensive guidance for my heirs. I received an email reply within the week and appreciated their detailed response. The delay from the date you notify OPM of an annuitant’s death to when the survivor actually receives their first monthly check can take from 4 to 6 months or longer!

Electing a Survivor’s Annuity

One of the exceptional benefits federal employees have is their ability to establish a significant lifetime monthly survivor’s annuity for their spouse. Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) employees can elect to leave up to 55% of their unreduced annuity to their spouse when they submit their retirement application package to OPM. Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS) employees can elect to leave as much as 50% of their unreduced annuity to their surviving spouse.

Survivor’s Annuity Cost

There is a cost for electing a survivor’s annuity, approximately 10% of your full annuity is set aside by OPM to fund your spouse’s survivor annuity. Well worth the cost when you consider the state of affairs today, and the fact that our annuities are adjusted by an annual Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA). My gross annuity has increased 63% from January of 2005 to today thanks to the COLA we receive!

The federal employee’s survivor’s annuity, when added to Social Security and the Thrift Savings Plan distributions, provides a three-tiered safety net for those we will inevitably leave behind. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) publishes the amount a surviving spouse will receive on the annual “Notice of Annuity Adjustment” that annuitants receive in January. You can also find this information in the Blue Book titled “Your Federal Retirement Benefits.” I request an updated copy every January from OPM and place that copy in my estate binder.

Reporting a Death

The surviving spouse or heirs must notify OPM as soon as possible after the death. You can report the death online or by phone at 1-888-767-6738. It is extremely difficult getting through by phone, expect long wait times if you can even get through.  I checked out the online submission and it is straight forward.

Once they receive either the online or phone death report, they will mail out all required forms to the mailing address provided on the report of passing within 4-6 weeks! If a survivor’s benefit was elected for the deceased spouse their health insurance continues.

Forms Submission

There is a separate “Application for Death Benefits” form for the two retirement systems and another for FEGLI Life Insurance as listed below:

After OPM processes the appropriate form, they will issue payment to the surviving spouse for their survivor’s annuity benefits back to the annuitant’s death. They will also change their health care plan to the Self-Only plan and pay the health care provider for any health insurance premiums since the retiree passed away. This reduces the survivor healthcare premiums significantly.

Until this is completed the surviving spouse continues using the healthcare cards they currently have and OPM advises the spouse not to report the passing of their spouse to the healthcare provider. Their coverage will continue in the interim until they receive their new cards.

After OPM pays the healthcare provider’s premiums for the self only plan, the health care provider will issue new healthcare cards to the surviving spouse with just their name on the cards. After receipt of the new cards destroy the old cards and only use the new cards with your name on it.

Federal Employees Group Life Insurance (Life Insurance Claims)

When you receive the forms from OPM 4 to 6-weeks after they receive the report of passing, complete the FEGLI FE-6 Claim for Death Benefits. OPM sends this form if the annuitant had a life insurance policy with them. Send the completed form back with a certified copy of the death certificate. You should receive the life insurance check within 3 weeks from the date they receive your completed form.


Part 2 will explain the weak link in the system, ways to reduce the delays as much as possible, and how to report a death to Social Security and the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP). I suggest printing this article and part-2 next week, and place copies in your estate or retirement binder for your heirs to use when needed. Review my 11-part Estate Planning Guide to help you take care of this essential task while still able to do so.

Go to Death Benefit Delays – Don’t Let This Happen to You (Part 2)

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Disclaimer: The information provided may not cover all aspect of unique or special circumstances, federal regulations, medical procedures, and benefit information are subject to change. To ensure the accuracy of this information, contact relevant parties for assistance including OPM’s retirement center. Over time, various dynamic economic factors relied upon as a basis for this article may change.

The advice and strategies contained herein may not be suitable for your situation and this service is not affiliated with OPM or any federal entity. You should consult with a financial, medical or human resource professional where appropriate. Neither the publisher or author shall be liable for any loss or any other commercial damages, including but not limited to special, incidental, consequential, or other damages.

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