New Jersey’s pension funds pay more than $650 million a year in benefits for retired workers who are no longer alive.

They’re survivor benefits and entirely legitimate — in fact, required under federal law.

Retiring public workers choose what type of pension they want, with some types providing smaller monthly benefits while they're alive in exchange for larger monthly pensions for a beneficiary after their death.

Still, the amount being paid out now exceeds $54 million a month, split among almost 30,000 people. It accounts for nearly $1 of every $16 in pension benefits, according to a New Jersey 101.5 analysis of pension data.

And they can last a long time, with nearly 150 recipients getting payments in connection with a person who retired more than 50 years ago – including one who left the East Orange school district six months before the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

There are more than 3,000 survivors collecting pensions for people who had retired just in the years since 2010. These pensions are worth $75.2 million a year.

The top survivor pension is the $154,000 being paid each year to the beneficiary of retired Superior Court Judge Peter Ryan, who died last year.

“It’s indicative of just how long-lasting these pledges of benefits are. They go on forever, or what feels like forever,” said state Sen. Declan O’Scanlon, R-Monmouth. “All the more reason we have to make sure the promises we’re making today can be kept to the public workers and by taxpayers tomorrow and for decades to come.”

Highest-paid survivor benefits

Names are of the retired public workers, not their beneficiaries. Dollar amount is annual total. Numbers are as of March.

Peter A. Ryan
Judiciary — Retired 2017 — $153,864

Joseph A. Falcone
Judiciary – Retired 2011 – $142,728

Bryan D. Garruto
Judiciary – Retired 2011 – $140,868

Alexander D. Lehrer
Judiciary — Retired 2007 – $139,764

Patrick F. Fitzgerald
Judiciary – Retired 2005 – $139,608

George W. Parsons
Judiciary – Retired 2008 – $137,724

Thomas N. Lyons
Judiciary — Retired 2010 – $136,044

Joseph M. Nardi
Judiciary — Retired 2002 – $134,988

David A. Mooij
Neptune Township schools — Retired 2015 – $131,700

David S. Cramp
Judiciary — Retired 2005 – $130,572

O’Scanlon is one of the Legislature’s most persistent backers of making additional changes to pension benefits. He said survivor benefits are worth a look to make sure they’re in line with other states but he doesn't think they are the problem for a system that’s $60 billion underfunded.

“If you think about it, it’s reasonable. You have a state worker who puts in his time – his people that live on beyond them, it being a nest egg, I think it’s probably fair,” O’Scanlon said.

“We have to look at everything,” he said. “But on the surface it seems to me that survivor benefits seem like certainly a fair category.”

Retirees have nine different pension options, from a maximum monthly pension that doesn’t provide any money to a retiree’s surviving family to ones that provide a beneficiary 100 percent, 75 percent, 50 percent or 25 percent.

In 2005, Phil Murphy headed a task force commissioned by then-Gov. Richard Codey that suggested having fewer payment options, saying that would result in lower administrative expenses and less confusion for employees.

It also recommended ending“pop up” pension increases that are possible under a 2001 law allowing a retiree’s pension to revert to a higher amount if his or her beneficiary dies first. The report suggested limiting those to cases when a beneficiary dies within five years of retirement.

O’Scanlon said that’s a change he could support, if research shows it would be helpful.

“Sounds to me like an area we could look at,” O’Scanlon said. “I wonder what the incremental cost is of people exercising that, or that happening.”

That 2005 task force also recommended a new lifelong survivors benefit equal to 50 percent of a public worker’s pension, so long as they met existing rules on age difference and relationship. At the time, it said the benefit would cost governments $23 million a year.

Longest-paid survivor benefits

Names, when available, are of retired public workers, not their beneficiary. Dollar amounts are annual totals. Numbers are as of March.

Name not available
Retired 1941 — East Orange — Teachers’ Pension & Annuity Fund – $4,719

Michael Fitzpatrick
Retired 1944 — Jersey City — Consolidated Police & Firemen’s Pension – $2,492

Charles DeRosa
Retired 1945 — Montclair — Consolidated Police & Firemen’s Pension – $34,980

James Bagnell
Retired 1950 – Atlantic City — Consolidated Police & Firemen’s Pension – $13,392

Name not available
Retired 1952 – Jersey City — Consolidated Police & Firemen’s Pension – $5,357

Name not available
Retired 1952 – Montgomery – Teachers’ Pension & Annuity Fund – $2,688

John Billack
Retired 1952 – Bayonne – Police & Firemen’s Retirement System – $23,712

Name not available
Retired 1953 – Plainfield — Consolidated Police & Firemen’s Pension – $4,065

Frank Nelson
Retired 1953 – Elizabeth — Consolidated Police & Firemen’s Pension – $13,392

Herbert Brydon
Retired 1953 – West Orange – Police & Firemen’s Retirement System – $3,136


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Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5 and the editor of New Jersey: Decoded. Follow @NJDecoded on Twitter and Facebook. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com