Where to Start
Many federal employees start the retirement planning process by attending a seminar sponsored by their agency. But after two or three days of informative lectures, what's next? Here are a series of first steps you should take to ensure a smooth transition into retirement.
Review Your Personnel Records
This includes going over the official personnel folder (electronic or paper) your agency maintains as well as the records you keep at home. The length of creditable service you have performed determines your eligibility for retirement as well as the dollar amount of your benefit. For Civil Service Retirement System employees, every month of creditable service adds 1/12 of 2 percent of your high-three average salary to your retirement benefit. For those under the Federal Employees Retirement System, the value is 1/12 of 1 percent (or 1.1 percent if you're 62 or older with at least 20 years of service) of your high three.
In reviewing your records, you might encounter one of the following scenarios:
- You have not maintained a complete history of your federal career. In that case, you'll need to make copies of personnel actions filed in your official personnel folder that show important dates, such as the date of your appointments to various positions. Remember, after you retire, you will no longer be able to access your official personnel folder.
- The records your agency maintains are incomplete. It's important to check, because the Office of Personnel Management will use these records to compute your retirement benefit.
Many agencies are in the process of transitioning their paper records to electronic storage. When this is complete, retrieving your personnel records will be much easier. In the meantime, access to your records might be limited. Have patience.
If you find that there are missing records or discrepancies in your records, it's time to ask for help. Also, if you find documents that have someone else's information misfiled in your records, you have to let your agency know so the problem can be corrected.
Check on Service Credit Deposits
You might owe money to your retirement system (either CSRS or FERS) for a period of service that wasn't covered by retirement deductions, such as temporary service, seasonal work or intermittent service. In addition, you might have service that became creditable when you were hired as a civilian federal employee, such as active-duty service in the military or volunteer service in the Peace Corps.
Also, you might have had a break in service and withdrew your retirement contributions. Currently, only CSRS employees are able to pay back refunded contributions. This might soon change, however, for FERS employees. A provision to allow redeposits of refunded FERS contributions has been included in the fiscal 2010 Defense authorization bill currently under debate in Congress.
Here are two important questions you should ask if you owe money to the retirement system: How much? and What happens if I don't pay? To find out, you'll need the assistance of a human resources benefits specialist. If you don't know where to find one, here's a list of headquarters level agency benefits officers.
Update Your Beneficiary Designations
I've written about this before. See this column for a complete list of forms and some additional information about these documents.
Check Out Your Social Security Record
If you are eligible for Social Security, but will be retiring under CSRS, you might be affected by the Windfall Elimination Provision and the Government Pension Offset. Here are links to two calculators from the Social Security Administration to determine if and how these will affect you:
Consider Enrolling in Medicare If you already are getting Social Security retirement or disability benefits or railroad retirement checks, you will be contacted a few months before you become eligible for Medicare and be given the information you need. For more information about Medicare, contact Social Security at 800-772-1213, or visit its Web site. If you need information about how your federal health plan coordinates coverage with Medicare, go to your plan's Web site. Here's how to find your health plan.
Evaluate Your Health Insurance Needs
It's only 17 days until this year's Federal Employee Health Benefits Program open season begins. Here are some resources to help you prepare:
- General open season information
- Health savings accounts
- Flexible spending accounts
- Federal Employees Dental and Vision Insurance Program
Evaluate Your Life Insurance Needs
As life goes on, your need for life insurance will change. The cost of life insurance also changes as you get older. Here are some resources to help you evaluate your Federal Employees Group Life Insurance coverage:
Consider Long-Term Care Insurance
I've written about this subject during the past couple of weeks:
Track Your TSP
Investing for retirement is a skill that many employees have not learned and many really do not want to learn. But it's essential to your future financial security.
The Thrift Savings Plan provides information that will help you understand the basics. If you don't feel comfortable choosing where to put your investments, I recommend using the life-cycle funds. You also can consider consulting an independent financial adviser.
Request a Retirement Estimate
To plan properly, you need as accurate an estimate as possible of what your future benefits will be. The best retirement estimate is one done by a human being with access to your official personnel folder. This is typically an employee or contractor who works in the human resources organization within your agency and specializes in retirement benefits. He or she is often overworked, especially these days, when so many employees are contemplating retirement. So your agency might place limits on the number and timing of estimates you can request.
The software most agencies use is capable of generating retirement estimates that take into account a range of service-related issues. The estimate typically will include a summary of your federal service and other useful information you will need to prepare for retirement.
If you already have received an estimate, keep in mind that its purpose is to show what your agency knows about you. If you see things that don't look right or you don't understand, be sure to seek an explanation.
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.