State Retirement System Rules on “Spousal Consent”
Does your husband or wife work in a job covered by a state retirement system? If so, it is important for you to know if you have a say in whether you will receive a pension if you outlive your spouse.
In private-sector pension plans, husbands and wives who outlive their spouses automatically receive a portion of their spouse’s pension unless they have agreed to give up these benefits. This is also true in some public pension plans, but not all. The rules relating to “spousal consent” differ from state to state. This fact sheet provides basic information on the rules governing spousal consent for the largest retirement plans in each state.
What is spousal consent?
When employees who are entitled to retirement benefits from state retirement plans are ready to retire, they must apply to begin receiving their pensions. The pension application form will ask them to make certain choices. Married employees will typically be given two basic choices: a single-life annuity, which pays benefits only for the retiree's lifetime, or a joint-and-survivor annuity, which pays reduced benefits during the retiree's lifetime in order to provide an annuity for the surviving spouse. (Payments to widows and widowers are often one-half the amounts received by the retiree.) Many plans also offer other choices, including the option of receiving a pension as a lump sum.
Some state systems require that a spouse consent when an employee decides to receive his or her pension in the form of a single-life annuity. Other states simply require that the husband or wife be notified that the employee has chosen to receive a pension that does not provide survivor annuity. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia don't require their retirees to notify their spouses or get their spouse's consent when they elect a single-life annuity: Alabama, the District of Columbia, Colorado, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, and West Virginia.
Why is spousal consent important?
If a retirement plan requires spousal consent, the spouse must agree to the chosen form of benefit. Spousal consent is especially important when an employee chooses to receive his or her pension as a “single-life annuity” because the pension payments will end once the retiree dies, leaving no survivor pension for the surviving spouse.
If the retirement plan requires spousal notification only, the spouse is informed about the benefit chosen, but his or her consent is not required. If neither spousal consent nor notification is required, the spouse may not know that he or she will not receive any pension benefits after the retiree dies.
To learn about the spousal consent rules in each state’s retirement system, click on the state in the map below for a link to more information.
Note: This list is based on information on the websites of the largest state-wide retirement systems in each state. Many states have several plans. This fact sheet does not cover city, town, and county retirement plans, or certain plans for police and firefighters, which often have their own rules. If you have questions about a state retirement plan, contact us or one of the Pension Counseling and Information Projects for assistance.
State retirement systems also differ in how they treat pension benefits at divorce. See our fact sheet, State Retirement Plans and Divorce, for more information.
A printer friendly version of this fact sheet can be found here.
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Did You Know?
A lump-sum distribution is a method of paying benefits from a pension plan in which a participant's entire beenfit is paid out in a one-time payment. Lump sum distributions are sometimes called cash outs.