U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Sheila deVera

Burning Benefits Questions

A summertime Q&A featuring hot issues involving federal retirement benefits.

Earlier this month, we celebrated Independence Day. For some federal employees, retirement is the ultimate in independence and freedom. To those of you who have retired during this unique period in history, congratulations on completing a career of dedicated federal service. For those still in the planning process, here are answers to some recent questions I’ve received about federal retirement benefits.

I am looking to retire in the next two years and have been enrolled in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program for my entire career at the self only option. My wife currently gets her health insurance 100% covered while employed by the private sector but has no post-retirement health insurance benefits. I want to have my wife covered by my FEHBP plan when she retires in five years but do not want to deal with paying to cover her until she actually retires. Can I add her to my health insurance post-retirement or must she be on my plan when I retire? Is her retirement a qualifying life event or do I have to add her during open season? 

You can add your spouse to your FEHBP plan during any open season or when she loses her health insurance. The latter would be a qualifying life event even if you have already retired. Your spouse does not need to be covered for five years prior to your retirement. The only risk in having self only health insurance is that if you were to die before your wife, she would not be able to enroll in FEHBP as a surviving spouse. In retirement, you can use Office of Personnel Management Form 2809 to make changes to your health coverage. Its instructions include a list of qualifying life events.

Two Civil Service Retirement System employees are married to each other. If they elect the 55% survivor annuity for each other, are their annuities subject to the Government Pension Offset? If yes, is the GPO calculated against their net monthly pension?

The GPO reduces and often eliminates entitlement to a spouse or widow's Social Security benefits. In the case of two CSRS retirees, there usually isn't much in the way of Social Security benefits to worry about. When one CSRS spouse dies, the surviving CSRS spouse will be able to restore their own CSRS retirement to the unreduced amount and receive the 55% survivor benefit of their deceased spouse. There would be no offset.

For example, suppose Joan and John both retired under CSRS, each with a $50,000 per year retirement benefit. They each elected survivor benefits, which reduced their benefit to $45,270. While they are both alive, they receive $90,540 a year in benefits. If John dies, Joan will have her retirement restored to $50,000 and she will receive 55% of John's $50,000 ($27,500), for a total income of $77,500.

For more information, see Social Security’s GPO Fact Sheet and information for government employees page.

I am currently 62, retired military and have TRICARE Prime. When do I have to enroll in Medicare A or B?

Answer: You will be eligible for Medicare Part A (hospital insurance) and Part B (outpatient insurance) when you turn  65. Understanding how Medicare and TRICARE work together and when to buy Part B can be confusing. You will need to show you’re enrolled in Medicare A and B in order to get coverage under TRICARE for Life. Don't forget that if you are still working for the government with coverage under FEHBP, then at age 65, you can delay Medicare and TRICARE For Life until you retire and continue to use FEHBP alone. As a federal retiree, you can suspend your FEHBP coverage to use TRICARE for Life and Medicare A and B by calling OPM’s retirement information line at 888-767-6738 to get a suspension form. You can reenroll in FEHBP for any reason during a future open season. 

Once I’m retired, how do I do business with the Office of Personnel Management? 

You’ll be able to access OPM’s Retirement Services Online once you retire from federal employment and begin receiving benefits under CSRS or the Federal Employees Retirement System. You can also call OPM with your retirement questions at 888-767-6738. The phone lines are open from 7:40 am to 5 pm ET. It’s best to call early in the day to avoid a long wait on hold. OPM also has a walk-up service window at its headquarters at 1900 E. Street, NW, Room 1323 in Washington, but it is temporarily closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. If you want to write to OPM, please make sure your first and last name, phone number, email address, claim number, and signature are included in any inquiries or documents. OPM says they usually respond within one to three weeks after they receive your mail. The address is Retirement Operations Center, U.S. Office of Personnel Management, Post Office Box 45, Boyers, PA 16017.

What should I remember to do after I retire from federal service?

There are generally five things you can change after you retire: your insurance elections, tax withholdings, Thrift Savings Plan distribution payments, status of life event changes (involving death, marriage, divorce and children), and address. The most important is to keep your address up to date. If you move, don’t forget to notify OPM, the TSP and Social Security.

Use the above contact information for OPM (Retirement Services Online is best).  For the TSP, you can change your address online at My Account: Profile Settings. To change your address with Social Security, set up and use a  My Social Security account.

Correction: The original version of this article included an incorrect link to OPM Form 2809. The article has been updated with the correct link.