Last week, we looked at some of the potential pitfalls in estimating how much you'll receive in retirement. This week, I'd like to provide some tips for avoiding them.
Attend a Seminar
Comprehensive pre-retirement seminars provide a thorough overview of the steps you should take in the planning process. These sessions should help you learn what questions to ask as you begin to implement your retirement plan. Check to see if such seminars are available at your agency. If not, you can sign up for one through a company such as Management Concepts Inc. in Vienna, Va. Get an Estimate
Request an estimate of your retirement benefits at least a year (better yet, three years) before your projected retirement date. Agency personnel offices may put a limit on the number of estimates that you can request due to workload and staffing issues, but it doesn't hurt to ask for one early.
The most important part of the estimate is a review of your service history and a check to see if you have any noncreditable time or if you owe a service credit deposit. The do-it-yourself estimates available on many agencies' Web sites, as well as those that are automatically generated through payroll systems, are great for general projections and long-range planning (more than five years from retirement), but these calculators assume that your service history is accurately documented. As you get closer to retirement, it's better to have a human being involved in the review process.
That person should review the type of appointments you have had (part-time, full-time, periods of leave without pay, and intermittent) as well as your type of retirement coverage (Civil Service Retirement System, Federal Employees Retirement System and the variants of these systems). You should ask for another specialist or supervisor to review your estimate if you think there might be an error or if you are simply uncomfortable with the employee assigned to assist you.
Keep Copies You should keep paper copies or electronic records of all paperwork related to your employment, including completed retirement forms, SF-50 "Notification of Personnel Action" forms from throughout your career, beneficiary designations and any other documentation that is evidence of your employment and retirement coverage. Just as you expect your agency to maintain copies of forms in your permanent personnel folder throughout your career, you should keep the "employee copy" of such forms.
Meet With a Specialist
If you are retiring in less than six months, you should schedule an appointment to meet with -- or at least exchange e-mail with -- a benefits specialist at your agency. Your agency is going to "retire" you, so be sure you understand what is going to happen in that process. (The Office of Personnel Management doesn't take over until after you've left your agency.)
Here are some questions to ask:
- When should I turn in my CSRS or FERS retirement application?
- Can you prepare a final retirement estimate for me to review before I turn in the application?
- What withholdings will be shown on the estimate? What other withholdings from my monthly retirement might there be?
- Am I eligible to maintain my health and life insurance benefits?
- What are my survivor benefit options?
- How long will it take to receive my lump sum annual leave payment?
- What is withheld from my lump sum leave payment? Does the payroll office do a standard tax withholding?
- Will you let me know when my retirement paperwork has been sent to OPM?
- Who should I contact at the agency after I retire if I have additional questions?
Your estimate should include a summary of your federal service, so that you can review the dates of service. Remember that the service computation date that appears on your leave and earnings statement is for leave accrual only. Your service computation for retirement calculation purposes could be different.
Be sure to ask the specialist to review your service history and let you know if there are any discrepancies and whether you need to consider paying service credit deposits.
If you have part-time service, ask to see the schedule that was used to compute it. If you worked a variety of part-time schedules, they all should be listed with the dates of changes. If you frequently worked more than your scheduled hours, payroll records should be used to credit you with the actual hours you were paid for.
Finally, if you're eligible for more than one type of retirement (for example, if you're retired from the military), be sure to request more than one estimate.
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.