Smoothing the Transition

How to make sure you get the benefits you’ve earned as soon as possible after you retire.

An Office of Management and Budget assessment found that in 2002, it took an average of 55 days for agencies to process Civil Service Retirement System benefits, and 70 days for Federal Employees Retirement System benefits. By 2005, the figures had increased to 80 days for CSRS and 93 days for FERS. This means there is a good chance that you'll have to go through a three-month transition from leaving employment to becoming an annuitant -- and that's assuming there aren't any problems. Throughout your career, you have been provided with duplicate personnel action forms. It pays to keep them organized. If something should turn up missing, you should be able to produce your own copy. Every month of creditable service counts towards meeting the service requirement for retirement eligibility and also increases the percentage of your high-three-year average salary that your retirement benefit is based on. Your retirement estimate is just that -- an educated guess. Only OPM can make it official. If something doesn't look right, ask why. If you have additional service that isn't listed on the summary of your federal service, mention this to your retirement specialist. The more you understand the benefits that you are entitled to, the easier it becomes to ask questions that may uncover a potential delay-causing problem.

There's little question that the kind of benefits federal employees enjoy in retirement play a major role in their decision to work for Uncle Sam. A 2003 Office of Personnel Management survey showed that the availability of retirement and insurance benefits influenced the decision of 68 percent of respondents to pursue a career with the federal government.

Employees expect their well-earned retirement benefits will seamlessly appear upon the completion of a career of dedicated federal service. But sometimes the transition isn't as smooth as they hope. Consider the following comment of a recent retiree:

I retired in January 2006 and have only received partial payment due to mistakes of the IRS. I have gone in debt, have lots of pain and suffering to try and get everything done. I even needed to withdraw partial payment of my Thrift [Savings Plan] and again due to an error of Thrift and IRS, it is delayed. I called and they say they are sorry but it will be another seven to 10 days. I think six months for a person to retire and not able to get all their benefits is sad. Also, if I owed the IRS, there would be penalty and compounded interest due them!

You won't go completely without benefits in this situation. As long as your eligibility for retirement benefits is not in question, you will be placed in interim retired status within a few days after OPM receives your claim for CSRS or FERS benefits. You'll receive 70-85 percent of your full retirement benefit while OPM completes processing your paperwork.

To-Do List

What can you do as an employee to make your retirement transition go smoothly? Instead of adding the "to do" list at the end of the column, like I usually do, I'm putting it right up front this time. Here are 10 things that can help you enjoy a smooth transition into retirement:

Check your service history. Be sure that your agency has maintained a clear and complete record of your career. The service computation date on your leave and earnings statement is computed for leave and earnings -- not retirement. There are only two ways to be sure your federal service history is complete:

  • Request a retirement estimate that will prompt a review of your official personnel records. (Check with your human resources office to find out where to request the estimate.)
  • Personally review your official personnel folder. Make sure it contains the beginning and ending dates of every individual period of your creditable federal service. Many agencies are in the process of converting to electronic storage of personnel records. If your agency has completed this project, your records are as close as your computer. Otherwise, the paper folder containing them could be in another state. Under the Freedom of Information Act, you have the right to review your personnel records.
Keep duplicate copies.

Consider service credit deposits. You may have the option to pay a service credit deposit to either receive credit for service or to avoid a permanent reduction in your retirement benefit. There are three types of service credit deposits:

  • Deposits to CSRS or FERS for civilian service that was not covered by retirement deductions. This is called "nondeduction" service. (See Feb. 10 column.)
  • Redeposits of refunded CSRS contributions. (See Feb. 17 column.)
  • Deposits for post-1956 military service. (See Feb. 24 column.)
Ask questions.

Keep copies of divorce records. If you have a former spouse who was awarded part of your retirement or survivor benefits, keep a copy of your divorce decree or court order. If you don't understand the value of the benefit payable to your former spouse, contact your attorney for an explanation. Be prepared to provide a copy of your most recent retirement estimate.

Get information about all benefits to which you may be eligible. These include Thrift Savings Plan payment options and any other entitlements based on employment, such as Social Security benefits, pensions from nongovernment jobs and funds in Individual Retirement Accounts. You should have a fairly comprehensive picture of all sources of your retirement income and when each is payable.

Submit your retirement application at least 30 days before your planned retirement date. In many agencies, it is common to give 90 days' notice of retirement. This advance planning allows the agency to begin to put your retirement package together before you leave. Since you are still on the job, it will be easier for them to contact you if any questions or concerns surface. Remember that there are thousands of federal employees who enter retirement life every month.

Take care of your insurance requirements. If you have long-term care insurance, contact Long Term Care Partners to have them withhold your premiums. If you are eligible, your agency will transfer your Federal Employees Health Benefits Plan and Federal Employees Group Life Insurance to OPM for you. Contact Social Security (1-800-772-1213) if you are eligible for Medicare.

Get educated. Having conducted thousands of pre-retirement seminars, I've discovered that many employees are focused on their current careers and approach retirement with a dangerous lack of knowledge about basic considerations. If you feel unprepared, plan on attending a pre-retirement seminar conducted at your agency or other location.

Prepare for the worst, but hope for the best. As the old saying goes, "The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry." Most federal careers end with a smooth transition to retirement, but if you encounter a problem, take a deep breath and work out a game plan. Keep the lines of communication open with the agency where the problem was encountered and resolve to find an equitable solution.

Resources

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.
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