The Check Isn’t in the Mail
I wrote a column in April about the waiting game that can occur in the first few months of retirement. This week, I thought I'd share some stories from recent retirees to show what can go right and wrong in the early days of retirement.
In the Interim
When a retirement case is initially processed by OPM, it is assigned to a claims examiner who must review the eligibility and computation for the requested retirement annuity. OPM waits to receive an applicant's paperwork and supporting personnel and payroll documentation from his or her agency before beginning the review process. During the processing period, the recently retired employee is placed in interim retired status while awaiting final adjudication of the retirement claim. Here's one retiree's story of this potentially frustrating period:
I retired April 3, 2008, and am still on interim pay four months later. My OPM case worker will not return my phone calls. (I left numerous voice messages asking for status). It is extremely frustrating trying to get any info from OPM as to whether my file is sitting in someone's in-box waiting for someone to open it, or whether it is in some stage of processing. The OPM Web site says the retiree should get 85 percent of anticipated annuity as interim pay but in my case it is 50 percent. After working 31 years for the federal government, I expect that OPM could at least talk to me and give me the status of my final annuity. I did not plan on being in interim pay limbo indefinitely.
Recent retirees should receive the name and number of their OPM claims examiner. If you do not have this information, you can contact OPM at 202-606-0500 or 888-767-6738 outside the Washington area. You also can e-mail the agency at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you have recently retired and have not heard from OPM, you should contact the human resources office or payroll office of the agency you retired from.
Here's another war story, from April 2008:
I retired on Dec. 31, 2007, under the Federal Employees Retirement System, with uninterrupted service at the same agency -- very simple. My estimate arrived quickly. However, I have not heard since -- no interim pay, nothing. I do have my annual leave check to live on plus Social Security. I have been in touch with the human resources specialist and OPM sent a claim number, but no payment. Am I to assume that I will not receive interest on the monthly payments, which I've not received thus far? Do you have any suggestions -- other than a note to my congressman? By the way: I loved my government job -- it was the best ever.
Once the interim status ends, OPM does make up any missed payments, but as you might guess, those payments do not include interest. In some cases, claims are delayed at the agency level rather than at OPM. Before you retire, you can request that your agency let you know when your retirement claim has been sent to OPM. Retirees who left at the end of 2008 should be starting to receive their lump-sum annual leave payments from their agencies. This is an indication that their claims are on the way to OPM.
Planning for a Painless Process
Some retirement claims have smooth sailing from agency to OPM. In fact, my understanding is that the majority of claims for retirement benefits fall into this category. Here's one report from someone who retired last year from the Homeland Security Department's Customs and Border Protection bureau.
As a result of your advice and the very knowledgeable and helpful people at DHS/CBP, my retirement on Jan. 3, 2008, went like clockwork. I have no complaints. I received my payments (interim annuity, annual leave, last paychecks) on time and with no delays. One small snafu was that OPM received wrong information from the Department of Agriculture, our pay processor, and my first interim payment was sent to a closed bank account. Retirees need to monitor the process and call OPM as soon as they notice a problem. I called OPM when my first interim payment was a few days late and they corrected the error right away. I have had no problems since. Future retirees need to educate themselves on the process. You will need living expense money for the first couple of months, so be prepared.
There is a connection between planning and smooth transition. Consider this advice from a recent retiree:
People considering retirement should start attending the seminars five to six years in advance at a minimum and attend at least three seminars. You learn something different each time. I have nothing but praise for OPM. I received a partial check of about 65 percent within 30 days, an 85 percent check the second month and by the third check, my full annuity.
Complicated careers do not necessarily mean longer waits for retirement processing:
I retired Jan. 3, 2008, and had no problems with pay issues. I received my lump sum for 568 hours' annual leave in my last regular paycheck. I received interim retirement payments for January and February, and my first regular payment for March on April 1. I am under the Civil Service Retirement System and worked overseas three different times, and in the United States four different times, for a total of 39 years and nine months' service (including four months' sick leave). I paid back my military time and 13 months of temporary time. I went over my retirement paperwork several times to make sure it was correct and included all necessary attachments before turning it in for processing. It all worked out great for me. I have no complaints. Thanks, OPM.
Here are three lessons you should take away from this week's column:
- It pays to take responsibility for your retirement by knowing as much as you can about what is involved in the process of computing your benefit, filling out the forms, and what to expect.
- Sometimes your agency might be the cause of the delay. Be sure to know who to contact at your agency if you have not received any information from OPM within six weeks after your separation.
- Have some patience and some extra cash available. This is why so many employees save up their annual leave prior to retirement. The payment for accrued annual leave should arrive within six weeks of your retirement. It can provide a financial cushion while you wait for your retirement claim to be finalized.
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.
For more retirement planning help, tune in to "For Your Benefit," presented by the National Institute of Transition Planning Inc. live on Monday mornings at 10 a.m. ET on federalnewsradio.com or on WFED AM 1500 in the Washington metro area.