At Your Service

By Tammy Flanagan

August 13, 2010

A few weeks ago, in a column titled "Before Your Time," I wrote about federal employees who have reached the age when they could retire, but might not have as much service under their belts as they'd like. The column attracted quite a few questions from readers, so I thought I'd take the time this week to provide some answers.

I retired from active military service in 1995 and began federal civilian employment in 2007. I was almost 52 at that time. How does the Federal Employees Retirement System affect my trying to retire in 10 years? Is there a way to calculate the retirement for that time frame?

If you wait to retire at 62 (very close to your 10-year anniversary), besides being eligible for Social Security and having your Thrift Savings Plan investments, you can get an unreduced FERS basic retirement benefit. The FERS eligibility rules allow an employee to retire at 62 with as little as five years of civilian service. At 60 or 61, you would need 20 years of service to retire with an unreduced FERS benefit -- although with 10 years or more, you could choose to take a reduced retirement.

This benefit will be computed only on your civilian service. So I'd recommend you also request a retirement estimate from your agency's human resources office showing what a combined FERS retirement would look like if you used your military service (I'm assuming you have at least 20 years of active duty) to add 20 years of creditable service to the 10 years of FERS civilian service. The catch is in order to be able to get credit for your military service you would have to pay a service credit deposit of 3 percent of your military base pay. In addition, you'd have to waive your military retired pay when you retire from civilian service.

Tammy needs to amend/correct this article. People cannot "postpone" their Federal Employees Health Benefits Program insurance. If they don't have continuous pay or an annuity, they cannot maintain the required five years of uninterrupted FEHBP coverage. Once gone, it's gone. This is a critical mistake and could mislead people into making the wrong choice.

I am always ready to admit my mistakes, but in this case, I think this is just a misunderstanding -- that nevertheless should be clarified.

The issue here involves the FERS MRA+10 option. If FERS employees meet minimum retirement age requirements (with at least 10 years of service, but less than 30 -- or age 60 or 62 with more than 10 years but less than 20 years), they are eligible to receive an immediate, but reduced, retirement benefit. But instead of accepting the permanently reduced benefit, they can postpone getting it to avoid some or all of the reduction. In this situation, FEHBP can be reinstated as long as an employee meets all the usual requirements to continue the coverage into retirement. Here are the regulations that cover this issue.

I'm a FERSie planning to retire in a couple of years at 56 with 23 years in service, and postpone taking the pension until I turn 60 to avoid the hit. My question relates to the lump-sum payment for any unused annual leave accrued at the time of my retirement. Would I get that lump-sum payment when I retire, or would it be deferred along with the pension annuity until I hit 60?

I love the term "FERSie." It sounds so friendly -- like a furry stuffed animal. Many people I meet refer to FERS as "FEARS." Anyway, you're planning what is known as a "postponed MRA+10" retirement, but you will be separating from federal service at 56. Your lump-sum annual leave is always paid at the time of your separation. You won't have to wait to receive this payment.

I am a CSRS Offset employee and have a question that hasn't been answered or addressed yet. Because I am CSRS Offset (I had a long break in service), I have only seven years of service. I will turn 50 this year. At what age would it be best to retire to get the maximum benefit?

Congratulations on returning to federal service. CSRS Offset employees follow the same eligibility and computation rules as "pure" CSRS employees. You will meet the age requirements before you have enough service. Since CSRS does not offer an MRA+10 option, you will have to work until you're 62, because you won't have 30 years of service at 55, nor will you have completed 20 years by age 60.

From what you've written, you will have 19 years of service at 62. This will be the first time you're eligible for an immediate retirement benefit. (Both CSRS and FERS employees can retire at 62 with as little as five years of civilian service.)

Here's an easy way to compute your CSRS benefit: First, take the years and months of your service and subtract two. Then, take that answer, double it and add 0.25. That will tell you the percentage of your high-three average salary you will be entitled to receive. For example:

19 (years of service) - 2 = 17
17 x 2 = 34
34 + 0.25 = 34.25 percent of your high three

Remember, under CSRS Offset you currently are paying the full FICA tax that is offsetting your CSRS 7 percent contribution, and your CSRS benefit will be "offset" or reduced by the Social Security benefit that is attributable to your federal service.

After 10 years of civil service, I crossed to the private sector. I was a GS-13 and under FERS. What will my retirement benefit be if I do not return to the government?

As long as you did not elect to take a refund of your retirement contributions, you are eligible for a deferred retirement at your minimum retirement age (reduced) or at age 62 (unreduced). Here's more information from the Office of Personnel Management's deferred retirement website.

Thanks very much for this article. There is an eerie similarity to my situation, down to the name and years of service, and you just answered my biggest question. So now I know I can retire on my birthday at age 60 with full benefits and 29 years of experience, instead of waiting to get my full 30 years in. It's just a seven-month difference, but it's nice to know.

Bingo! Thanks for letting me know that my column provided some clarification. Sometimes it's the little things that matter.

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 or on WFED AM 1500 in the Washington metro area.

By Tammy Flanagan

August 13, 2010