What to Expect if You’re Expecting to Retire Soon

Leaving in 2021? Here are some things you should know.

If my email inbox is any indication, the end of 2021 is going to be a busy time for federal human resource professionals as well as the Office of Personnel Management’s retirement services operation. In fact, it probably already is, since most employees who plan to retire on Dec. 31 should have already submitted their applications.

Retirement applications have been on the rise this year. In every month since January, they’ve been higher than in 2020.

As of the end of September, OPM had a backlog of almost 29,000 unprocessed claims. That’s more than double its target of 13,000 claims awaiting processing at any given time.

The time it takes to process a claim hasn’t changed much in the past four decades. In January 1981, OPM settled retirement claims in an average of 98 days. In September 2021, it was 94 days.

According to a 2019 Government Accountability Office report that analyzed claims processing between 2014 and 2017, OPM identified three main reasons for delays: continued reliance on paper applications and manual processing, insufficient staffing (particularly during peak season) and incomplete applications. Up to 40% of applications fall into that last category.

Based on this information, what can you do to make sure your transition to retirement goes as smoothly as possible?

  • Expect delays, so don’t be caught off guard.
  • Be sure to have an emergency fund set aside in case you have to wait for your claim to be processed. While you’re waiting, you’ll receive partial retirement payments, but not your full annuity benefit.
  • Use the online application forms OPM makes available so they’re sure to be legible.
  • Be sure to review your application before submitting it to your HR office. Don’t forget to sign it and initial your annuity election on the SF 2801, Section F (Civil Service Retirement System) or SF 3107, Section D (Federal Employees Retirement System) application. 
  • You should receive a copy of your SF 2801-1 or SF 3107-1 (Certified Summary of Federal Service) with the name and contact information of the personnel official at your agency who completed it. If you see any discrepancies or errors, be sure to address them before your separation. 
  • Keep copies of your completed application and your service history (SF-50 Notification of Personnel Action) forms that show beginning and ending dates of federal service appointments, changes in your work schedule, changes to your retirement coverage, military records, and records of civilian and military service credit deposits.
  • Ask your retirement specialist how long to expect to wait for your lump sum annual leave payment and how long it is expected to take to have your application forwarded to OPM.
  • Check the Thrift Savings Plan website to learn about the four important things you must do about your account when you separate from federal service.