What Is a Court Order Acceptable for Processing (COAP)?

A court order acceptable for processing (COAP) is a legal ruling granting the ex-spouse or dependent of a federal employee the right to receive all or a portion of the benefits of a government retirement plan in the event of a divorce, a separation, or an annulment of a marriage. It is a marital assets settlement order issued and approved by a court of any state.

Key Takeaways

  • A court order acceptable for processing (COAP) gives a former spouse or dependent rights to a government employee’s retirement benefits.
  • A COAP can determine how to divide assets held in FERS and CERS plans after a divorce, a separation, or an annulment of a marriage.
  • An employee annuity, a former spouse survivor annuity, and a refund of employee contributions are the three types of benefits divisible with a COAP.
  • The marriage must have lasted for more than nine months to qualify for survivor spouse benefits.

Understanding a COAP

A COAP is a court ruling that provides guidelines and directions to be used by the United States Office of Personnel Management (OPM) in administering the retirement benefits to be paid. The OPM will not process a COAP with vague or flawed directives, and the parties involved in the marital settlement will be redirected to the state courts to solve the issue. Also, in the case of contention where one party misunderstands or disagrees with the COAP, all parties involved have to settle the dispute with the court, which can clarify or amend its orders for better comprehension. 

The Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) is a federal law that governs the distribution of benefits from a private retirement plan. Qualified retirement plans—such as defined-contribution plans, defined-benefits plans, simplified employee pension plans (SEPs), employee stock ownership plans (ESOPs), profit sharing plans, and 401(k)s—are all governed by ERISA.

Retirement benefits provided by the military, federal government, county, city, or state are not classified as qualified retirement plans. Therefore, ERISA directives do not apply to them. Federal employee retirement benefits are governed by the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS), Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS), Thrift Savings Plans (TSPs), and military retired pay.

In the event of marital dissolution, the court requires a qualified domestic relations order (QDRO) to make a judgment on how the retirement benefits of an employee will be distributed. An attorney sends a domestic relations order (DRO) to the plan administrator, who assesses and confirms whether it is a qualified order based on whether its required payments align with the plan’s payments and federal laws. If qualified, the court makes a judgment that requires the plan administrator to distribute the employee’s benefits accordingly. The laws that apply to federal plan benefits are different from those that govern qualified plan benefits.

Consequently, if the language of the DRO stipulates ERISA terms, the DRO might be rejected because ERISA laws do not apply to federal pension benefits. If the DRO is acceptable, the attorney relays this to the court to begin the processing of benefits. A DRO that is qualified under a federal retirement plan is called a “court order acceptable for processing (COAP)” and is the equivalent of a QDRO in the private sector.

Employee vs. Spouse Annuity

There are three types of retirement benefits divisible in a COAP: an employee annuity, a former spouse survivor annuity, and a refund of employee contributions. A benefit awarded in one of the three areas may affect the benefit of the other two areas. For example, if a COAP awards survivor annuity payments to a former spouse , the employee’s annuity will be reduced or eliminated.

The employee annuity is the monthly benefit payable to the annuitant or employee upon retirement. The COAP has to indicate whether the retirement system is FERS or CSRS and must specifically direct OPM to pay the former spouse. If there are no directives on who makes the payment, OPM is assumed to make the payments. However, if the directive of the COAP is for the annuitant to make the payments, OPM would not process the request on its end.

A COAP also includes directives on how the OPM should compute the portion of the annuity that is due to the former spouse. The computation can be stipulated as a fixed amount or a percentage of the employee annuity based on the years of marriage. The COAP must also be specific as to the type of annuity that the computational shares should be made (e.g., the COAP language can read 20% of gross annuity or 50% of the net annuity).

A former spouse survivor annuity is the benefit payable to a former or current spouse under a COAP upon the death of the plan’s beneficiary. Explicit instructions by a COAP given to OMP on how to compute the former spouse survivor annuity must be done prior to the beneficiary’s death or retirement, whichever comes first. When a federal employee retires, a portion of their annuity will be paid to their former spouse as ruled by the COAP. However, if the employee does not stipulate a survivor benefit in the event of their death, the annuity payments given to the former spouse while the retired employee was alive will stop if the employee dies. A new order that comes in after the employee’s death to continue paying a former spouse will not be honored.

In terms of benefit payments for child support, the child must have been born of the marriage to qualify.

A former spouse must have been married to the employee or retiree for at least nine months (and not had something to do with the death of the employee) to qualify for survivor benefits. In addition, the former spouse must not remarry before the age of 55 to keep receiving survivor benefits, unless they were married to the late employee for at least 30 years. In the case of a self-only annuity, where a retiree has elected not to provide annuity benefits to any survivor, the surviving former spouse will not be awarded payments after death.

Any refund of employee contributions is payable when the employee is terminated from their job before they retire. A COAP may provide that all or a portion of the refund be paid to a former spouse. The COAP may also prevent payment of a portion of the refund of retirement contributions be made to a former spouse.