Ask The Experts: Retirement

By Reg Jones

Finding Your High-3

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The “high-3” is an essential element in the formula used to calculate your annuity. But what does the term high-3 mean? And how do you figure out what yours is?

The high-3 defined

Your high-3 is the average of your highest rates of basic pay over any three consecutive years of creditable civilian service, no matter when they occur in your career, with each pay rate weighted by the length of time it was received.

That three-year period starts and ends on the dates that produce the highest average pay. It starts on the first day that leads to the highest three-year average, not on Jan. 1, the first day of the month, or the date of a pay change.

Basic pay

Basic pay is the amount of salary from which retirement deductions are taken. It includes the salary you receive for your position and level as shown on an official pay table, including locality pay for the 48 contiguous states. In some cases, it may include such things as night and/or environmental differentials, premium pay, and special pay rates for recruiting and retention purposes.

However, it doesn’t include such things as bonuses, military pay, cash awards, holiday pay, travel pay outside the regular tour of duty, non-foreign area cost-of-living adjustments or lump-sum payments covering unused hours of annual leave. Nor does it include any salary supplements provided to employees who are covered by workers’ compensation.

Finding the start date

Your highest three consecutive years of average pay usually will usually be the ones that immediately precede the day you retire. If that’s the case, all you need to do to find the starting date for your high-3 calculation is to subtract three years from the date you plan to retire plus one day.

For example, if you want to retire on Jan. 3, 2015, your calculation would start with Jan. 4, 2015: Jan. 4, 2015 minus three years = Jan. 4, 2012.

One day is added because every year ends on the day before the next one begins. For example, the new year begins on Jan.1, but the old year ends on Dec. 31. So, if your birthday is Oct. 17, then Oct. 16 is the final day of the preceding year.

However, if your high-3 occurred earlier in your career, you’ll have to identify the last date on which your pay was at its highest then follow the process above to find the beginning date for your high-3.

Breaks in service

The three years used to calculate your high-3 don’t have to be continuous; however, they do have to be consecutive. For example, if your highest salary years were interrupted by a break in service, your high-3 could be made up of one period of service, a break of any length, and a second period of service. As long as your periods of service are consecutive, it doesn’t matter how many breaks in service you have.

Leave without pay

If you’ve been on LWOP for no more than six months in any calendar year, that period will be included in your high-3 calculation. Any period of LWOP beyond six months in a calendar year will not be included, and will be treated as a break in service.

Military leave

Unlike LWOP, if you were called to active duty in the armed forces, the six-month limit doesn’t apply. However, as a rule, you would have to make a deposit to the retirement fund to get credit for any period of LWOP.

Non-deduction or refunded service

A deposit also may be required if you have any periods of non-deduction or refunded service that fall within your highest three years of average salary. As a rule, this situation only arises if your high-3 occurred earlier in your career and likely when you were covered by CSRS.

Putting a dollar sign on your high-3

To find your high-3 average salary, you’ll have to go back through your pay slips or Standard Form 50s to locate each pay change and how long you received it. Each pay rate must then be weighted by the length of time it was received. So, for example, if you received $75,000 for three months in a year and $78,000 in the remaining nine, your average pay for that 12-month period would be $77,250 ($75,000 ÷ 12 = $6,250 x 3 = $18,750 + $78,000 ÷ 12 = $6,500 x 9 = $58,500, and $18,750 + $58,000 = $77,250).


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Q. I’m under FERS, and my Service Computation Date is Nov. 26, 1983. A co-worker in my organization has an SCD of Nov. 7, 1983 and is under CSRS. What is the SCD cutoff date for FERS vs. CSRS? Read the rest of this entry »

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Credit for state service

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Q. I have been employed in New York and I’m under the NYS Employee Retirement System. Would any portion of my New York civil service time count as creditable service in the FERS system if I were to gain employment under the federal retirement system?

A. No, it would not.


FERS after resignation

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Q. I resigned from the federal government May 21 with a retirement SCD date of March 22, 1988, so I am vested in FERS. When I elect to apply for a refund of my FERS, do I get everything that I have in my FERS account or just the portion that I put in?

A. You’d get what you contributed to the retirement system, plus accrued interest.

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In my last column (read it here) I wrote about the age and service requirements for Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) employees to retire. In this one, I’ll focus on Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS) employees.

FERS age and service requirements to retire

Immediate retirement

Age 62, with 5 years of service.

Age 60, with 20 years of service.

Minimum retirement age (MRA), with 30 years of service.

MRA, with 10* years of service.

Early retirement

Age 50, with 20 years of service.

Any age, with 25 years of service.

Deferred retirement

Age 62, with 5 years of service.

Age 60, with 20 years of service.

MRA, with 30 years of service.

MRA, with 10* years of service.

* If you retire under the MRA plus 10 provision, your annuity will be reduced by 5 percent for every year (5/12 percent per month) you are under age 62.

Note: FERS special category employees, such as law enforcement officers, firefighters and air traffic controllers, may retire at age 50 with 20 years of covered service or at any age with 25.

Immediate retirement means that you have the age and service needed to retire on an immediate, unreduced annuity. Once you have that combination, you can retire whenever you want to. You can take early retirement, if your agency is offering that opportunity through a Voluntary Early Retirement Authority and/or a Voluntary Separation Incentive Payment. It’s also an option — called discontinued service retirement — if you are being separated through a reduction-in-force or for poor performance. A deferred retirement is one where you leave government before being eligible to retire and apply for an annuity when you meet the eligibility requirements.

FERS credit rules

Figuring out your age is simple. Figuring your length of service can be harder, unless your career has been continuous, with no breaks in service or any service credit to be added or deducted. However, for those whose career is made up of bits and pieces, you need to know what kinds of service can be included.

If you are covered by FERS, you’ll get credit for any FERS service for which deductions were taken and not refunded. As for service where you left government and asked for a refund of your contributions, for 20 years FERS employees were barred from recapturing that service if they came back to work for the government. All that changed with Public Law 111-84. Now any FERS employee who retires on or after Oct.28, 2009, can redeposit that money, plus interest, and get full credit for it.

You’ll also get credit for nondeduction service performed before Jan.1, 1989, if you’ve made a deposit for that service. And you’ll get credit for periods of military service performed before Jan.1, 1957. You’ll also get credit for periods of service performed after Dec. 31, 1956, but only if you make a deposit for that post-1956 time. And, if you are receiving military retired pay, you’ll probably have to waive it to get any credit.

Finally, if you transferred to FERS from CSRS and had at least five years of CSRS service, you’ll have a CSRS component in your annuity, unless you got a refund of your retirement contributions. If you did, you can still make a deposit and get credit for that time.

Computing your length of service

Your annuity will be based on your total years and months of creditable service. Any days that don’t add up to a full month will be converted to hours and added to any hours of unused sick leave you have to your credit. If you have enough of those hours, they’ll be converted to months and used in the computation of your annuity.

The method for converting those hours to months needs an explanation. Here’s how it’s done:

In order to produce 12 equal annuity payments, each month is treated as if it was 30 days long. To convert those leftover hours into additional retirement months, the number of hours in a work year — 2,087 — are divided by 360 (12 months x 30 days).

As a result, each additional month is roughly 174 hours long.

Reg Jones was head of retirement and insurance programs at the Office of Personnel Management. Email your retirement-related questions to, and view his blog at federal-retirement.

Military retired pay, FERS, VA disability

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Q. I retired from the military with a 40-percent VA disability. I am now a government employee under FERS. If I buy back my military time and then retire under FERS, will I still receive my VA disability payments and, if so, will the VA payments be deducted from my FERS retirement in the same way as they are deducted from my military retirement today?

A. While you would have to waive your military retired pay when you retire from your civilian position, you wouldn’t have to waive your VA disability payments. They would have no affect on your FERS annuity.

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Q. I had 10 years of employment covered under CSRS, then resigned. I came back in 2007 under FERS. I also have two years, five months and 21 days military service. Would it be to my benefit to change to CSRS offset. I plan on retiring May 2015 when I will be 62 with 20 years of service.

A. You can’t change your coverage now. You are a FERS employee who will have a CSRS component in his annuity. If your active-duty service was performed before you first became a federal employee (or while you were covered by CSRS), you could make a deposit and get credit for that time in your CSRS component. If it was between the time you left and were covered by FERS (or while you were covered by FERS), it would apply to your FERS component.

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Retirement penalty?

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Q. I am FERS employee. I am 60 and this September I will have 29 years of service. Will I be penalized if I retire before I turn 62 and with only 29 years?

A. No, you won’t. You can receive an immediate, unreduced annuity at age 60 with as few as 20 years of service.

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CSRS Offset

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Q. I started with the federal government on Aug. 18, 1986. I was recently reviewing my personnel records and noticed that from that day until Dec. 31, 1986, my retirement plan was listed on my SF-50 as CSRS Offset. Then on Jan. 1, 1987, it was changed to FERS. Were individuals who entered federal employment on Aug. 18, 1986, automatically changed to FERS the following January, or were employees given the choice to choose between CSRS Offset and FERS? Read the rest of this entry »

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Benefits for ex-spouse

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Q. My divorce decree doesn’t mention retirement. We made no claim for each other’s retirement nor did we waive any rights. It just wasn’t mentioned. Can my ex-spouse claim any of my FERS retirement benefits? If so, would it only be half of what I put in during our marriage? Read the rest of this entry »

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FERS annuity

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Q. I have 20 years of federal service, am 52 years old and currently work for a Federally Funded Research and Development Center. When I separated from federal employment, I was told I have an annuity based on my employment years (contributions made).

A. Assuming that you didn’t get a refund of your retirement contributions when you left, you’d be entitled to a deferred annuity at age 60.


Cumulative Retirement

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Q. Item 19 of the LES has “Cumulative Retirement” FERS:
What exactly does this number mean? Is it just a total amount in FERS, or something else? Monthly or yearly amount at retirement?

A. It tells you how much you’ve contributed to the retirement system.


Re-employment after disability retirement

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Q. I was removed from my agency due to becoming “Medically Unqualified” after 4 years, 9 months under FERS and given disability retirement in 2007. I am considering returning to federal service with a job at the Defense Department. With the disability retirement, I understand that if I maintain the retirement until I am age 62, the time I was on disability retirement would count as time in service for computing my regular retirement. Does that mean the time I have been a disability annuitant will count as service time for a new federal job? Would I/could I buy back the time? I understand my annuity will cease on the date of re-employment. Read the rest of this entry »

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VSIP Amount Calculation

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Q. I received $19,100.00 severance pay in a RIF in 1996. In 2000 I was re-employed by the Federal Government. I am now considering a VSIP. What amount can I expect? I am 72 years old with 20 years of service. Read the rest of this entry »

Military buyback and re-enlisting

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Q. I have 13 years in the Air Force, all of which were on Active Duty. I separated honorably and bought back my time and now work for the Dept. of Veterans Affairs (FERS). I currently have 27 years of creditable service. If I were to re-enlist into the Air Force Reserves, would I be able to collect my military retirement after a 7-year enlistment completing 20 years of total military service, even though I bought back my 13 years of active duty time? Read the rest of this entry »

Sick leave into annual leave

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Q. I am a FERS employee with 32 years of service credit. I’m planning to retire on 6/30/14. I’m going to have around 480 hours of sick leave when I retire. Since you only get credit for a full month, I will lose around 130 hours. My HR person told me that I could get supervisor approval to change my sick leave to annual leave, not exceeding a total equal to the annual leave that I have on the books. I had never heard of that so I asked for specifics, which she couldn’t provide. Is it possible to convert sick leave to annual leave? If so, how do you do it? Read the rest of this entry »

Service credit and sick leave

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Q. I am a FERS employee with 32 years of service credit. I was in CSRS for 5 years, 10 months and 28 days. I left the government but came back 3 years later as a FERS employee. When I retire I will have 28 days of CSRS service credit and 25 days of FERS Service Credit. Will 7 days of my excess sick leave (56 hours) be applied to my remaining days of 23 to give me an extra month toward retirement?

Read the rest of this entry »

FERS postponed retirement

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Q. My wife just turned 57 and has a little more than 23 years of service. Her MRA is 56. I believe if she takes a postponed versus a deferred retirement, she will be eligible to get her full retirement annuity when she turns 60. What form should be filled out for a postponed retirement? I only see one for a deferred retirement.

A. The form you saw was for CSRS retirees only. When your wife applies for her postponed FERS retirement, she would need to fill out Retirement and Insurance Form RI 92-19. Deferred/Postponed Retirement FERS, available at



‘Retire, FERS’ refund

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Q. My wife worked for the federal government from 2011 to 2012 and resigned in August 2012 due to medical reasons. During that two years of service, $222.07 was deducted from her pay for “Retire, FERS” and there were matching funds of $3281.31, so the total is $3503.30 for the “Retire, FERS.” Can my wife request that money be refunded?

A. If she doesn’t plan to return to federal service, she would only be entitled to a refund of her own retirement contributions. Doing so would cancel her entitlement to any future retirement benefit. However, if she got a refund and later returned to federal service, she could redeposit that money, plus accrued interest, to get credit for that period of service.


Special retirement eligibility

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Q. I am currently 43 years of age and I am a DoD firefighter with 20 years and 2 months of service under the FERS special retirement. I plan to move to another FERS position that is not covered under the FERS special retirement. I want to work in this position until I reach age 50. Since I have 20 years of service in the special retirement, could I still retire under special retirement once I reach age 50 even though I won’t be in a FERS special retirement position when I turn 50? Read the rest of this entry »