June 22, 2007If you are planning to join what Office of Personnel Management Director Linda M. Springer calls the federal "retirement tsunami" this year, then you may have some questions about the actual process involved, such as, "When should I turn in my application?" and "When will my checks start arriving?" From my experience with soon-to-be retirees, I have compiled a list of common concerns from those who have set a date and are enjoying (hopefully) their final days on the job. When should I turn in my retirement application?
In larger agencies, applications under either the Civil Service Retirement System or the Federal Employees Retirement System generally are turned in 60 to 90 days prior to the chosen retirement date. In smaller agencies (less than 3,000 to 4,000 employees), 30 days is probably sufficient. To be on the safe side, ask your human resources office what they would recommend.
There are some things that the personnel office must do before you retire to be sure your service history is properly documented and your insurance coverage will continue. If you simply wake up one day and decide to retire, your application still will get processed -- just not as quickly as you might like.
What forms do I need?
Your HR office can provide you with the necessary forms and publications to help you make a smooth transition. Here are some that are online:
If I change my mind, what is the latest I can ask for my retirement request to be rescinded?
Retirement is considered a voluntary action similar to a resignation. If you change your mind on the last day, you have the option to stop the presses and continue your employment. The only exceptions would be if you accepted a buyout, if you are subject to mandatory retirement (that includes law enforcement officers, firefighters and air traffic controllers) or if you are retiring under discontinued service retirement (due to factors such as an agency reorganization or your job being abolished).
If I am going to combine my military career with my civilian career, how do I waive my military retired pay?
If you are considering this option and need more information, check out my column Mixing Civilian and Military Retirement (June 30, 2006). If you want to waive your military retired pay to receive credit for military service in the computation of your CSRS or FERS benefit, you should write the Military Retired Pay Operations Center at least 60 days before your planned retirement. Here's the address:
Or you can fax your request to 888-469-6559.
What if I owe money to my employer when I retire?
You may owe your agency money for outstanding travel advances, overpayments of salary, failure to return government property or damage to such property, or advanced leave. You should resolve these before you retire.
If you have a health care flexible spending account, it will terminate as of the date of your retirement. There are no extensions. Any expenses incurred prior to the date of separation will be reimbursable, but those afterward are not. If you used your entire elected amount before it was deducted it from your account, you will not be responsible for the remaining payments. You can continue to use the remaining balance in a dependent care flexible spending account until the end of the benefit period or until your account balance is used up, whichever comes first.
How do I apply to withdraw my Thrift Savings Plan funds?
You must apply directly to the TSP. You can't choose to withdraw your funds until after your agency has notified the TSP that you have left government (usually within 30 days of your separation). You are required to withdraw your account balance in a single payment, begin receiving monthly payments or start receiving annuity payments by April of the later of:
You will have a variety of options. See Withdrawal Options (March 14, 2006), Life Expectancy vs. Life Annuity (April 6, 2007) and TSP Withdrawal Quiz (April 13, 2007).
You should allow several weeks from the time you submit your request until payment is sent. It could take longer if the agency delays in reporting your separation, if you have an outstanding TSP loan or if you submit forms that are not properly completed. If you are using the TSP Web site to complete your form, you will not be allowed to begin the process unless your TSP record indicates that you have left government and have no outstanding loans.
How do I apply for Social Security retirement?
You should apply for Social Security about three months before you want your first check. You can make an appointment with a claims specialist in your local Social Security office by calling 1-800-772-1213, or you can apply for benefits online at the Social Security Web site.
When applying for Social Security, CSRS retirees need to be aware of the Windfall Elimination Provision and the Government Pension Offset. To learn more about them, see Offsetting Penalty (June 9, 2006) and Gone with the Windfall (Sept. 1, 2006).
What do I need to do to continue my health benefits?
Your human resources office will determine if you are eligible to remain in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program. This will be done after you turn in the retirement application, during the review of your personnel records. If you were covered under someone else's FEHBP or military health care plan (CHAMPUS or Tricare) during the last five years of your career, be sure your HR office knows this. They will include a notice with your retirement application to the Office of Personnel Management to let them know which insurance coverage you will continue. The premiums will be deducted automatically from your CSRS or FERS retirement benefit. If you want to review the requirements for maintaining this valuable benefit, see Ensuring a Healthy Retirement (June 16, 2006).
What do I need to do to continue my Federal Employees Group Life Insurance?
Your retirement application includes a form to continue FEGLI coverage. You have to choose how much life insurance you wish to maintain. To review the possibilities, see Life Insurance Options: Part One (Sept. 15, 2006) and Life Insurance Options, Part Two (Sept. 22, 2006).
What about the two newer benefits programs: long-term care insurance and dental and vision benefits?
Your current Federal Employee's Dental and Vision Insurance Program coverage will continue when you retire. Retirees can choose to change dental or vision plan coverage during an open season. You can sign up for these benefits even if you didn't have them before retirement.
If you have long-term care insurance, you will need to contact the company that oversees the program, Long Term Care Partners, to let them know you are retiring. Deductions will not automatically transfer from your agency to your retirement system -- you need to take action. You can contact Long Term Care Partners' customer service center at 1-800-LTC-FEDS (1-800-582-3337). As soon as they hear from you, they will work with your retirement system to set up premium deductions from your annuity. You can also choose to start long-term care coverage after you retire. Can I change health plans when I retire?
Simply retiring does not create an open season to make changes in your FEHBP coverage. But retirees who move outside of the area covered by their plan may enroll in a different plan covering their new location, and OPM may announce special open seasons affecting members of specific plans only. Becoming eligible for Medicare creates another opportunity to change FEHBP coverage. If you marry, divorce or become widowed after retirement, you may also change FEHBP coverage within 60 days following such an event (or up to 30 days before). Retirees participate in annual FEHBP open seasons in the same manner as employees. How do I deal with tax withholding from my retirement checks?
Most of your retirement income will be subject to income tax withholding. This includes your CSRS and FERS retirement benefits, TSP monthly or lump sum withdrawals and Social Security (depending on your adjusted gross income). If you do not complete a tax withholding form when you apply for retirement, you may contact the agency overseeing each of these benefits to change your withholding election. The National Active and Retired Federal Employee Association has an online guide to state taxation of federal retirement benefits.
Do I receive a retirement check or are the funds deposited directly into an account I designate?
Technically, you can still receive a paper check, but the Treasury Department recommends you sign up for direct deposit. About 80 percent of federal benefit payments are now made by direct deposit. If you will be living outside the United States after retirement, you may not be able to choose direct deposit. Many retirees choose to have their payments deposited in a U.S. bank and use ATM withdrawals, checks or online banking services.
Do I have to make new beneficiary designations when I retire?
No. The selections you made as an employee for CSRS, FERS, FEGLI and TSP benefits will follow you into retirement. If you wish to update your beneficiary designations, you will need to complete a new set of forms. To learn more, see Who's Your Beneficiary? (May 12, 2006).
How long before my retirement checks start to arrive?
There may be an interim period between your last paycheck and the arrival of your first retirement check. To prepare for this, you may want to have some extra cash available. Many employees use their lump sum annual leave check to cover expenses while waiting. To learn more about choosing a retirement date and maximizing your lump sum leave check, see Best Dates to Retire 2007 (Nov. 3, 2006).
Tammy Flanagan is the senior benefits director for the National Institute of Transition Planning Inc., which conducts federal retirement planning workshops and seminars. She has spent 25 years helping federal employees take charge of their retirement by understanding their benefits.
June 22, 2007