How Much Do You Deserve?

It’s important to get an accurate estimate of your retirement benefit, which in turn means getting credit for all your government service.

Last week, I started answering some questions I received recently following a webinar I conducted on short- and long-term retirement planning. This week, I’ll finish up by answering a few more.

It is very scary trying to calculate just how much you will receive, especially when there is no human resources assistance locally and everyone says that retirement computations provided are just an estimate. What happens if after you retire, your estimate is too far off and you really can't afford to retire? Can you come back without a break in service?

Once you separate from federal service, it can be very difficult to be reinstated. If your agency made a mistake by processing your retirement when you weren’t eligible to retire, then it’s possible you can get your job back. But if you simply miscalculated the amount of income you need to retire comfortably, you would have to get rehired, which might not be so easy.

Keep in mind your retirement estimate is based on two factors: the average of your highest three years of salary and your length of creditable federal service. You know what your salary rates have been and where and when you have worked for the federal government. When you receive your retirement estimate, look it over carefully to be sure all your federal service has been included and your salary rates were properly documented. For more information on the computation of federal retirement benefits, see this series of columns.

I received an annuity estimate and saw that a three-month block of time from the early 1980s when I was a student intern was not included. How can I ensure this time is included in my annuity?

Congratulations! You took a very important step in retirement planning by requesting a retirement estimate from your human resources office. As part of the estimate, you received a summary of your federal service so that you could verify all your past service was included. Now that you’ve noticed a period of missing service, you should contact the specialist who prepared the retirement estimate for help in locating the missing records. If you have any documentation in your own records that includes dates, that may be enough to have your internship included in your retirement service computation date. Otherwise, the missing records might be in storage at the National Personnel Records Center.

What is the difference between the two service computation dates? Why are they not the same?

Actually, there are more than two service computation dates. There are different ones for leave, retirement, the Thrift Savings Plan and reductions in force. The rules for getting crediting for service are different for each. For example, to count active-duty military service toward leave accrual, you must provide documentation of your active service. If you are retired from the military, then you will receive credit for combat time and campaign service. On the other hand, to receive retirement credit for military service, you may have to pay a deposit to the Civil Service Retirement System or the Federal Employees Retirement System.

When you retire, do you pay the entire premium for your health insurance, including what the employer paid when you were working?

Retirees who are eligible to maintain Federal Employees Health Benefits Program coverage pay the same premium as active employees. The government continues to pay the employer share of the premium. The only difference is you will pay premiums on a monthly withholding from your CSRS or FERS retirement benefit as opposed to the biweekly withholding for active employees. Also, unlike current employees, you’ll have to pay income tax on the money that is used to pay your health insurance premiums.

How can I determine how much Federal Employees Group Life Insurance coverage I have?

Next to the withholding on your leave and earnings statement for FEGLI and also on SF-50 Notification of Personnel Action forms, you will see a code indicating your FEGLI coverage. Here’s a guide to these codes to help you determine the amount of your coverage.

Is cashing out my FERS balance completely not an option? If you’re referring to a lump-sum credit in your FERS retirement account (not your TSP account), then here are the rules: If you seek a refund of retirement deductions, you permanently void any retirement rights based on the period of service the refund covers, unless you’re rehired in a permanent federal position with retirement coverage.

To get the lump-sum credit, you have to be separated from federal service for at least 31 consecutive days and not be reemployed in a position that is subject to CSRS or FERS deductions. You must file an application with the Office of Personnel Management to get the refund.