Survivor Benefits

Authored By: Pension and Retirement Rights Project


Question. My husband recently passed away. His monthly pension check pays many of our bills. Will these payments continue?

Answer. In many cases, surviving spouses can continue to get pension benefits after the "participant" spouse (the one with the pension) dies. This payment option is called a "joint and survivor annuity." Under this option, the participant will get slightly smaller benefit payments during his or her life. If the participant dies first, his or her surviving spouse will then usually get 50 to 75 percent of the participant's payment. Rights to survivor benefits depends on whether the employer was public or private, when the spouse retired and whether survivor benefits were waived.

Private Pension Plans. If your spouse has a private pension and retired before 1985, he or she could "waive" or give up your survivor benefits without telling you. If your spouse retired during or after 1985, the plan must pay survivor benefits unless you waived these benefits in writing.

Public Pension Plans. Most federal government employees are in the CSRS and FERS pension plans. These plans have the same protections for a surviving spouse as private plans. Other federal employee plans, for example military and postal worker plans, have as good or better protection for surviving spouses.

Most state and public employees in Iowa participate in the Iowa Public Employee Retirement System (IPERS). If your spouse is a participant in IPERS and retired after 1986, you and your spouse must agree in writing on a benefit option.

Survivor Rights in a Divorce. If you are divorced, you can get survivor benefits through a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO). In some cases, a divorced spouse may get survivor benefits if he or she is the beneficiary of the pension.

This is a general summary of a surviving spouse's right to pension benefits. Pension plans are very complex. If you think you should be getting a survivor's pension, you should contact a pension attorney. Iowans who need help with survivor's benefits or other pension issues can contact the Pension and Retirement Rights Project 1-800-992-8161. There is NO CHARGE for the services.

Last Review and Update: Mar 03, 2023
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