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Countdown to Retirement: What You Need To Be Ready For

A detailed look at the steps you can expect to go through in the process.

Five years before “Bill” retired as a civilian Navy employee on Dec. 31, 2020, he started plotting his retirement strategy. He relied on training he received from seminars, written publications, and a variety of online sources (including this column) to help him understand his benefits and plan his retirement.

Bill also had access to a retirement specialist at his human resources office who provided him with more specific information, such as the Office of Personnel Management's retirement checklist, which covered everything from the pre-application process through post-retirement.

Bill kept a diary of the whole experience, and it’s so detailed that I thought you might like to see how he tracked his progress, and shows the steps many federal employees will go through as retirement approaches. 

Five Years From Retirement

Early in the process, Bill determined when he could financially retire. He maintained a personal budget tracking his income, taxes, checking and savings account balances, and long-term and short-term debt. A key to managing his finances in retirement was to be sure that his only debt was a home mortgage. Since it had a very low interest rate and was manageable, he didn’t worry about this as he approached retirement.

Here are some general tips for this stage of the process:

  • Review and monitor your electronic Official Personnel Folder annually to make sure it includes every civilian and military record. Be sure to let your human resources specialist know if you discover missing records, so there’s ample time to determine if existing documents are adequate to receive credit for your service. 
  • Keep track of key forms that need to be filed, such as designation of beneficiary forms.
  • If you’re considering a second career, copies of performance appraisals and job descriptions could also come in handy.

At this stage, Bill:

  • Planned to receive the maximum sick leave credit and annual leave lump sum payout by continuing to save sick leave and carry the maximum annual leave. 
  • Maintained life insurance that was enough to cover final expenses for him and his wife. 

Fall 2020

September:

  • Bill received instructions to mail his Federal Employees Retirement System application package (retirement application and continuation of life insurance form) via FedEx to the Civilian Benefits Center four months before retirement to allow for processing, in case there were application errors or missing documents. 
  • Bill requested copies of his Individual Retirement Record maintained by his agency payroll office and used by the Office of Personnel Management to determine the retirement benefits payable to a separated employee or his or her survivors. 
  • Bill followed the Social Security website’s advice to apply for retirement benefits four months before he wanted to start receiving them.

October:

  • Social Security notified Bill that his first payment would be deposited in December for the month of November. Bill had reached his full retirement age of 66, and since there was no longer an earnings limit, he began receiving Social Security before his federal retirement.

November:

  • The retirement specialist in HR notified Bill that she had completed processing his retirement application and it was being submitted to payroll for further processing. The specialist also emailed Bill his final annuity estimate.
  • The completed form CMS-L564, certifying that Bill had current employee health coverage, was returned to him. He would use that form to avoid a penalty for late enrollment in Medicare Part B. He had an eight-month special enrollment period following his retirement.
  • Bill changed his federal health plan during the 2020 open season to one that would provide wrap-around coverage—waiving copays, deductibles and coinsurance when Medicare was primary payer. He also chose a plan that would reimburse part of Part B premiums.

Last Month on the Job

December: 

  • Bill changed his MyPay online payroll access email address to his personal address and changed his password.
  • Bill’s agency payroll officer notified the Defense Finance and Accounting Service of Bill’s retirement. They provided his final time and attendance record for pay period 2, showing 80 hours of work completed, as well as a final eight hours annual leave and four hours of sick leave accrued. Bill separated with a total accrued unused balance of 448 hours of annual leave and 1802 hours of sick leave.
  • He completed the Medicare Part B enrollment form so coverage would be effective on Jan. 1, 2021.

Post-Retirement

Jan. 6, 2021: 

  • Bill received an email that his final pay statement was available online. 

Jan. 8: 

  • Bill’s final pay and lump sum annual leave payment were deposited to his bank account. (Note that this can take up to eight weeks, depending on the payroll provider). 
  • DFAS notified the Thrift Savings Plan of Bill’s retirement. His TSP employee account was deactivated and his retirement account was opened up.

Jan. 9

  • Bill completed his TSP withdrawal application for periodic payments and mailed it to the TSP Service Center in Birmingham, Alabama.

Jan. 20

  • DFAS notified Bill that his retirement information had been electronically submitted and his complete application folder had been mailed to OPM’s Retirement Operations Center in Boyers, PA.
  • The TSP processed Bill’s first payment for direct deposit.

Jan. 22

  • OPM issued Bill’s first interim retirement payment. These are payments to recent retirees that are somewhat less than the full amount, but can help cover expenses while a retirement claim is being processed. 

Jan. 27

  • DFAS emailed Bill a statement of the annual leave lump sum adjustment for the 2021 salary increase that was processed to be paid by check. Since Bill retired at the end of the leave year, he received credit for the January pay adjustment of 1% added to his lump sum annual leave payout

Jan. 29

  • OPM sent Bill credentials to access its services online. Once enrolled, he saw that his claim was received at OPM on Jan. 20.

Feb. 1

  • Bill’s first interim payment was deposited in his bank account. It was 85% of the agency estimate.

Feb. 19

  • OPM increased Bill’s interim payment from 85% to 93% of his retirement estimate. This is typical as work progresses on the claim and it is closer to being adjudicated. 

Feb. 25

  • Bill’s health benefit change from the 2020 open season was processed by OPM. 

March 3

  • A retirement specialist from OPM called Bill to let him know that part of his retirement application was missing and she could not go further until she received a signed original. She said it appeared that either the HR or payroll office scanned only one side of the double-sided document that Bill provided. She suggested Bill mail a complete original. Luckily, Bill had saved the original copy of the application and was able to mail it the same day.

March 8

  • Bill received a welcome packet from Blue Cross/Blue Shield insurance, along with identification cards for him and his wife.

March 9

  • Bill received an email from an OPM retirement specialist indicating that his application was received and his claim was being finalized. 

Shortly thereafter, Bill had fully transitioned to retirement and was receiving a government pension benefit, Social Security retirement and withdrawal payments from the TSP. His was a fairly typical experience, but as you can see, it involved a lot of steps and keeping track of a great deal of paperwork.

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