December 29, 2011
TEACHERS' RETIREMENT SYSTEM SURVIVOR BENEFITS
By: Judith Lohman, Assistant Director
You asked what statutes apply to the spouse of a teacher who:
1. is a Teachers' Retirement System (TRS) member;
2. dies after becoming eligible for a retirement benefit but before retiring; and
3. failed to change his designated beneficiary from his father, now deceased, to his spouse.
You also asked if anything could be done to enable the spouse to receive benefits as if she were a designated beneficiary.
In the case described above, because the teacher did not designate his spouse as his TRS pension beneficiary, the spouse is eligible only for monthly surviving spouse benefits, plus a monthly benefit for each dependent child and a lump sum death benefit.
In certain cases, the surviving spouse of a TRS member may opt for an alternate survivor benefit equal to either monthly retirement benefits or a lump sum payment of the member's accumulated TRS contributions plus interest. These alternate benefits are considerably more generous than surviving spouse benefits in most cases. But a spouse is eligible for these options only if (1) he or she is member's sole designated beneficiary or (2) all the member's designated beneficiaries waive their rights to benefits in the spouse's favor. If the member's designated beneficiary is dead, there is no way for the spouse who is not the designated beneficiary to meet these conditions.
The TRS is a state-run retirement system for Connecticut public school teachers and state law specifies the benefits and benefit eligibility. To enable the surviving spouse in the case described to choose the alternate benefits, the legislature would have to change the law retroactively to make a surviving spouse the default beneficiary in such cases. It is possible, however, that such legislation could raise issues relating to retroactivity, cost, and the legislature's authority to enact such a change.
TRS SURVIVORS' BENEFITS
TRS provides benefits to survivors if a teacher dies (1) while working in Connecticut public schools, (2) within two months after he or she stops working but before retirement takes effect, or (3) while receiving TRS disability benefits. There is no minimum service requirement.
In addition, upon retirement, TRS members may choose reduced monthly retirement benefit payments that allow a designated co-participant to continue receiving all or part of the payment after the member's death. If a member dies after selecting a co-participant option, the selected option takes effect and no survivor benefits are payable (CGS § 10-183f (f)).
Monthly Survivor Benefits
The basic TRS survivor benefits are:
1. for a surviving spouse, $300 per month plus an additional $25 per month for each year of Connecticut public school teaching service over 12, up to a maximum of $600 per month;
2. for each dependent child under age 18 (or over age 18 if disabled), $300 per month;
3. for a dependent former spouse, $300 per month;
4. for a dependent parent over age 65, if there is no surviving spouse or dependent former spouse, $300 per month; and
5. for the legal guardian of a dependent child, if there is no surviving spouse, dependent former spouse, or dependent parent, $300 per month.
The maximum family benefit is $1,500 per month. In applying the maximum, benefits are first allocated to the dependent children, with the surviving spouse and dependent former spouse receiving prorated benefits up to the maximum.
Monthly benefits to a surviving spouse continue until the spouse dies or remarries before age 60. If a surviving spouse remarries after turning age 60, the monthly benefits are not affected (CGS § 10-183h(f)).
Survivor benefits are not eligible for annual TRS cost of living adjustments (CGS § 10-183f(j)-(l)).
Lump Sum Death Benefit
In addition to the monthly benefit, a surviving spouse receives a lump sum death benefit. The benefit is $1,000 for five or fewer years of Connecticut public school service and $200 for each additional year of service, up to a maximum of $2,000. If there is no surviving spouse, the death benefit equals the member's burial expenses up to the maximum that would have been payable to the surviving spouse (CGS § 10-183h(b)).
If the member's accumulated TRS contributions plus interest exceed the aggregate survivor benefits paid, any remainder is paid to the member's designated beneficiary (CGS § 10-183h(e)). If a designated beneficiary dies before the member, excess contributions must be paid to the member's estate (CGS § 10-183b(5)).
ALTERNATE SURVIVOR BENEFITS
The law provides alternatives for an eligible surviving spouse to receive other payments in lieu of TRS survivor benefits.
Eligible surviving spouses may chose to receive either (1) a lifetime benefit equal to that payable under a 100% co-participant option or (2) a lump sum equal to the teacher's total TRS contributions plus credited interest. (The 100% co-participant option provides an actuarially reduced monthly benefit to a retired teacher for life with the same amount continuing after the teacher's death to his or her designated co-participant.) These options are available only if (1) the surviving spouse is either (a) the member's sole designated beneficiary or (b) all other designated beneficiaries relinquish their claims to benefits and (2) the teacher was, at the time of death, eligible for retirement other than a disability retirement (CGS § 10-183h (d)).
POSSIBLE STATUTORY CHANGE
In the case presented, the spouse is locked out of the alternate benefits because (1) she is not the member's designated beneficiary and (2) the designated beneficiary is dead and cannot waive his benefits in her favor. Furthermore, she cannot benefit from any excess payments of accumulated contributions plus interest to her husband's estate because her surviving spouse benefit ceases only when she dies or if she remarries before age 60.
The only way to alter this is through legislation. One possibility would be make a surviving spouse, if any, the member's beneficiary by default in cases when the member dies before retiring and either (1) his or her sole designated beneficiary has already died or (2) the member has not designated a beneficiary. This would allow a surviving spouse to receive benefits under the 100% co-participant option or a lump sum payment of the member's contributions plus interest, if the deceased member was eligible for a nondisability retirement. Such a change would protect a surviving spouse against loss of benefits the member earned because of a member's error or inadvertence. To preserve the member's choice, he or she could be allowed to override the default provision by expressly waiving it.
Such legislation could raise several questions.
1. Retroactive legislation, especially if narrowly targeted, might be viewed as an unconstitutional emollient for a particular person.
2. Such a change would cost the TRS more because it would increase the benefits to some surviving spouses.
3. By law, certain TRS benefits, including surviving spouse benefits, are considered contractual (CGS § 10-183c). Thus, the legislature's authority to alter them may be limited (OLR Report 2010-R-0391 addresses this topic TRS in greater detail).