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Why it’s important to get an early estimate of your retirement benefit.

One of the important things all employees should do before retirement is request an annuity estimate. This is a calculation of your Civil Service Retirement System or Federal Employees Retirement System benefit prepared by your human resources office for a specific retirement date.

It's different from the do-it-yourself estimates that can be found on many automated payroll systems. And keep in mind, it's only an estimate. The Office of Personnel Management has final authority over your retirement computation.

If possible, you should request your first estimate several years before you plan to retire. Some agencies are overwhelmed with estimate requests and actual retirements these days, so they may limit estimates to employees who are within a short window of retirement eligibility and might prepare only one or two computations per year.

You might think the purpose of getting an estimate is to look at the bottom line and see if your monthly retirement benefit will be enough to meet your financial needs. But that's just one reason why it's a good idea. Here are several more.

Summary of Service: Your estimate should include a page showing a summary of your federal service. This will include the beginning and ending dates of employment at each agency where you've worked. This information comes from your official personnel folder, so review it carefully to make sure all your service is accurately documented. If something is missing, this will affect the accuracy of your retirement computation and could affect your eligibility for retirement. You are responsible for making sure your agency has a complete record of your federal career. If something is missing, you can use the employee copies of your records such as SF-50s (Notification of Personnel Action) or DD-214 (Military Discharge) to provide documentation. (You have saved your employee copies, right?)

Civilian Deposits: If you owe any money to the retirement system, this should be shown on your estimate. This could include a deposit for civilian service -- such as a temporary appointment, a summer job, or a seasonal appointment -- that wasn't subject to CSRS or FERS contributions. If you had a break in service and took a refund of your retirement contributions, the estimate can include the amount that you can pay back, including the interest due on the redeposit. Keep in mind that the HR people at your agency may not be aware that you have already repaid your refund. They also may not know you didn't apply for the refund after your break in service. This would have been a payment or a request made directly to the Office of Personnel Management, and your agency would not have been notified.

Military Deposits: If you have a period of military service subject to a deposit, your estimate might indicate that this has or has not been paid. You might have paid the military service deposit while working under a different payroll system and that information could be on file with OPM, but no longer available to your agency. Save a record of your paid deposits so you can file these receipts in your official personnel folder. Keep a copy for your personal records too.

Service Without Credit: Your retirement estimate also may show some time during your federal career that is not creditable for retirement. This could include military service for which you are receiving retired pay, civilian federal service performed after 1988 that was not covered by FERS retirement contributions, and leave without pay that exceeds six months in a calendar year.

Survivor Benefits: If you're married or interested in providing a survivor's benefit, your estimate can show the reduction for a survivor's annuity. The estimate also will indicate the amount of the benefit in the event you die before your beneficiary. If you want to choose a partial survivor's benefit, this also can be computed on your retirement estimate.

Insurance: Options for continuing your Federal Employees Health Benefits Program coverage and Federal Employees Group Life Insurance can be shown on the estimate. The monthly premiums for these benefits appear as withholdings.

Sick Leave: Your estimate will indicate the amount of unused sick leave that will be used in computing your retirement. You should check this against the balance that's actually in your account to see if the estimate reflects your current use and also to find out if the balance of sick leave was projected to your retirement date.

High Three: Depending on how far in advance of your retirement date you request the estimate, it might also include a page showing the salaries used to compute your high-three average salary. If you are requesting an estimate more than three years in the future, your current salary will be used.

Staying Longer: If you request more than one estimate for different retirement dates, you'll be able to see the effect of working longer, gaining more service and more time at your highest salary rate.

Other Considerations: The estimate also should show information about specific situations such as pro-rated part-time service, computation of the offset if you're covered under CSRS Offset, and a figure for your FERS supplement if you're eligible for one.

These are some of the reasons an estimate of retirement benefit is so important to your planning process. As always, though, remember that you won't have the final data from OPM on exactly what your benefit will be until several months after you've retired.

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 Mondays at 10 a.m. EDT on federalnewsradio.com, or on WFED AM 1500 in the Washington-metro area.