- Financial planners can help you manage your money and prepare for major life events such as paying college tuition and financing a comfortable retirement.
- Accountants can help you deal with the Internal Revenue Service, coming up with strategies to avoid paying more taxes than you need to.
- Lawyers can help with specialized issues such as estate planning and assisting couples going through a divorce.
Then there are retirement benefits specialists. Most of them are employed by the human resources offices of federal agencies. Others, like me, are independent contractors hired by agencies to provide group training. Finally, an even fewer number of contractors are available for personal counseling.
Many of those in the latter category are hired directly by agencies to provide individual counseling to employees. They have access to official personnel records and expensive software that agencies use to compute benefits. Companies such as the National Institute of Transition Planning (with which I am affiliated), EconSys and Government Retirement and Benefits Inc. can put you in touch with a retirement specialist.
Remember, there's no such thing as a college degree in federal retirement benefits counseling. Training for specialists is provided by agencies in cooperation with the Office of Personnel Management. Other knowledge is simply gained through experience.
Every agency has a headquarters-level benefits officer who is the OPM point person and liaison between the clerks, counselors and benefits specialists in the agency. You should seek help from the person within your agency who has been assigned to help you with your retirement. If you don't know who that is, you may want to contact the headquarters benefits officer to find out what retirement counseling your agency provides. OPM provides an online directory of agency benefits officers.
The job of a retirement benefits specialist is not to replace financial planners, accountants or lawyers. It's to help you understand your federal benefits, based on the information in your official personnel folder. Unlocking Information
That folder, which contains all the records of your employment, stays at your agency until you retire. That's why OPM itself can't provide retirement information before you leave federal service.
That process is changing, however, as OPM implements its retirement systems modernization effort, which is putting federal employment records online. The goal, according to OPM Director Linda Springer, is to prepare for the increasing number and complexity of retirement applications, and to respond to increased customer demand for self-service retirement tools. More information on the retirement systems modernization is available at the OPM Web site.
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.