If you were to ask me what is the single most important thing you should do to ensure a smooth transition to retirement, it would be to request a retirement estimate at least a year (preferably five years) before you are eligible to retire.
The estimate is a computation of your Civil Service Retirement System or Federal Employees Retirement System benefit that is prepared by a specialist in the human resources office of your agency. Some (probably most) agencies are overwhelmed with estimate requests and actual retirements these days, so they may limit estimates to employees who are within a short window of retirement eligibility and might prepare only one or two computations per year. It is also not unusual for a request to take several weeks to be processed. Keep in mind that deaths, disability inquiries and actual retirements take precedence over your request for a retirement estimate.
In a column last year, I wrote about the information that a good retirement estimate should include. You can read that column for full information, but here are the elements:
- Summary of your federal service
- Civilian deposits
- Military deposits
- Service without credit
- Survivor benefits
- Sick leave
- High-three average salary
- The benefits of working longer
- Other considerations, such as prorated part-time service and computations for those under CSRS Offset and those eligible for a FERS supplement.
Remember that you won't have the final data from OPM on exactly what your benefit will be until several months after you've retired, due to ongoing processing delays. It is important that you work with your agency’s benefits office before your retirement to be sure your estimate accurately reflects your service record and that your retirement application package is completed correctly and in a timely manner. It is a good idea to submit your retirement application to your HR office 60 to 90 days before your retirement date. Here are the CSRS and FERS retirement applications.
In addition to the estimate prepared by your HR office, if you wish to explore additional scenarios, you can use an online calculator to supplement your agency estimate. FedBens is one that’s been around for a while and has a lot of flexibility.
You might think the only purpose of getting an estimate is to look at the bottom line and see if your monthly retirement benefit will be enough to meet your financial needs. But as you can see from the above list, that's just one reason why it's a good idea to request a retirement estimate.