Flickr user Rajarshi Mitra

Life Changes and Benefits Changes

How to navigate the process of assessing your benefits options when life intervenes.

Federal employees and retirees typically consider making changes to their benefits during an open season or when a new benefit is introduced. However, there are times when changes need to be made for more personal reasons, such as a life-changing event. During such times, it can be confusing to navigate the process of making changes, since no one else is doing it at the same time as you are.

What do you do when it’s time to add or change your benefits because of a life event such as a marriage, divorce, birth or adoption of a child, or the death of a family member?

If you’re a current employee, you can contact your human resources office or access the employee page of your agency’s website. If you’re retired, generally you’ll need to contact the Office of Personnel Management, the Thrift Savings Plan or the Social Security Administration. Most changes to benefits can be made online, and the instructions are generally easy to follow.

For example, to change the allocation of your TSP investments, visit the Interfund Transfers page of the TSP website. Here you will find a three-minute YouTube video along with written online instructions that explain what you need to do and how to do it. Directions to make a transfer by phone are provided as well. Before making an interfund transfer, review the investment funds available to be sure you understand your options for allocating funds.

On the other hand, let’s say you’d like to change the tax withholding on your Social Security retirement payments. On SSA’s website  you can go to the Retirement Benefits section and click on Manage Your Benefits. There you’ll find a number of online services, along with a publication called What You Need to Know When You Get Retirement or Survivor’s Benefits, which explains how you need to complete Form W-4V from the Internal Revenue Service. If you search “tax withholding” on the SSA website, you’ll be directed to the withholding section of the agency’s benefits planner, where you will find a link to the form and an overview of taxes and Social Security.

For employees and retirees who need to make a change to their insurance coverage or who need information about their retirement benefits, the agency to contact is OPM. Here you will find extensive information about insurance and retirement benefits.

But making changes to these benefits isn’t exactly a simple process. If you’re a current employee, you’ll need to process changes to your insurance and retirement through your agency’s human resources or payroll office, depending on the change you are requesting or the procedure your individual agency has in place. Sometimes the change can be made electronically. In other cases, you may need to submit a paper version of the necessary form and mail it to the appropriate office.

This is when you may run into a snag and become frustrated, because it isn’t always clear who to contact or how to process the change. Many of these kinds of changes can’t be made electronically. For example, if you want to update your beneficiary designation, you must obtain the form, which is available online. After filling it out, you must print it on paper, have your witnesses sign it and mail it in.

Benefits forms usually provide instructions for submission. But they may only say something like, “Employees should submit the form to their employing agency.” But where? If it is a personnel matter like a beneficiary form, contact your agency’s human resources organization. If you don't know who to contact, find the benefits counselor for your agency at OPM’s website. The benefits counselor can help you find the office in your agency that has your employment records. If you're retired, you can contact OPM Services Online rather than attempting to call or write to the agency to get information.

Photo: Flickr user Rajarshi Mitra