What Is a Qualified Joint and Survivor Annuity (QJSA)?

A qualified joint and survivor annuity (QJSA) provides a lifetime payment to an annuitant and spouse, child or dependent from a qualified plan. QJSA rules apply to money-purchase pension plans, defined benefit plans and target benefits. They can also apply to profit-sharing and 401(k) and 403(b) plans, but only if so elected under the plan.

Understanding a Qualified Joint and Survivor Annuity (QJSA)

The plan document of a qualified QJSA plan usually provides the annuity payout percentage, but the general requirement is that the survivor annuity must be at least 50% and no more than 100% of the annuity paid to the participant. If the participant is unmarried, the annuity is paid for his or her life expectancy.

According to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), "a qualified plan like a defined benefit plan, money purchase plan or target benefit plan must provide a QJSA to all married participants as the only form of benefit unless the participant and spouse, if applicable, consent in writing to another form of benefit payment." For more on QJSA rules, the IRS provides an information page. Rules governing QJSAs can be found in Title 26, Chapter I, Subchapter A, Section 1.401(a)-20 on the Federal Register.

Qualified Joint and Survivor Annuity: Features and Considerations

Qualified joint and survivor annuities for married participants have the following features.

  • Retirement payments are made at regular intervals over retirement (primarily monthly).
  • After death, the plan will make a monthly payment to a surviving spouse of at least 50% of the original benefit payment.

Like many annuities, a QJSA provides a lifetime benefit to a primary participant and spouse via monthly payments. As such, they should be factored in to any financial planning and retirement income and expense scenarios. Such a product is not subject to diminishing payments due to poor stock market performance. QJSA distributions, once initiated, are not changeable.

Also, distributions in addition to the regular monthly payment are not allowed. If the participant is in poor health, a QJSA (like any annuity) may not be a good investment of the assets required to fund such an investment vehicle. Payments may also lose purchasing power over time unless adjusted for a cost-of-living increase.

Qualified Joint and Survivor Annuity Example

An individual's employer-sponsored 401(k) plan offers a QJSA that provides a monthly $1,500 retirement income at age 65. It also provides for a $1,000 monthly retirement benefit for the spouse when that individual dies. That benefit is paid until the surviving spouse dies. The individual may choose to receive a lump-sum distribution of benefits, but only with the written consent of their spouse, witnessed by a notary public or a plan representative.

One exception is that a plan may pay a lump-sum distribution to a participant without first obtaining their (and their spouse's) permission if that sum is $5,000 or less. If a participant gets divorced they may be required to treat their former spouse as a current spouse as part of a qualified domestic relations order or according to the terms of the divorce. Should a divorced participant want to change their beneficiary of survivor benefits they will have to contact a plan administrator.