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).

FERS rate following transfer

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Q. I was hired at the Defense Department in October 2012, and thus I contributed .8 percent of my pay to FERS. I transferred to VA in April 2014 with no break in service and now have 3.1 percent of my pay deducted, and I am told that it is increasing to 4.4 percent of my pay, as this rate applies to new hires after January 2014. Is it correct that I should be treated as a new hire, despite in all other areas being treated as a transfer (leave carried forward, no ability to change benefits until open season)? I checked and my SF-50 reflects the correct service computation date from 2012. My HR representative has informed me that I will be in the 4.4 percent group when I questioned why I was already paying the 3.1 percent. Read the rest of this entry »

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FERS or CSRS

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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 a SCD of Nov. 7, 1983, and is under CSRS. What is the SCD cutoff date for FERS vs. CSRS?

A. As a rule, employees who were first hired before Dec. 31, 1983, are covered by CSRS. To review that requirement and other details which might affect your situation, go to www.opm.gov/retirement-services/publications-forms/csrsfers-handbook/c010.pdf. If you meet the qualifications to be covered by CSRS, you’ll need to go to your personnel office and ask them to help you process your claim under the Federal Erroneous Retirement Coverage Corrections Act.

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Seniority and military service deposits

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Q. Does seniority play a part in military buy back? Do you move up in seniority with your buy back time? Read the rest of this entry »

Possible RIF’s effects on workers

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Q. I work at an airport as an air traffic controller for the FAA. The airport is not very busy with commercial traffic, and I am curious what the FAA would do with me if they shut down the air traffic control tower where I work at because of inactivity. If there were a reduction in force for air traffic controllers in the FAA, would they base it on our service computation date? Read the rest of this entry »

Annual leave computation

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Q. My service computation date is 11/1999. Will I accrue eight hours of leave starting 11/2014? Read the rest of this entry »

Redeposit of CSRS

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Q. I am a CSRS Offset employee with almost 30 years of service. After my first period of civilian service (1981 through 1992), I was laid off during a RIF. I withdrew my CSRS deposit in 1992 and have not paid it back.

Can I still get retirement credit for my civilian service prior to March 1, 1991, and receive actuarial reduction versus paying back my withdrawal plus interest? Read the rest of this entry »

Prior service adds to service comp time

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Q. I am currently a DoD employee with prior military service as well as time with USPS. My service computation date was adjusted to reflect my prior military time. Am I allowed credit for the time I was with USPS. If so, how is that time computed/reflected?  Read the rest of this entry »

Buying back LWOP for annuity calculation

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Q. At 19, I was recruited and placed into a civilian Defense Department position as a cooperative education student. I would be placed on leave without pay during periods when I was attending college and not working. This continued for five years. My start date was June 1980 and I finished my degree in August 1985. My service computation date is April 1982. Is there an option to buy those LWOP periods to bring my SCD to 1980?

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VERA pros and cons

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Q. I am a FERS employee working for the Department of Agriculture. I have been offered a job outside of the government and am trying to see the pros and cons of leaving. I am a FERS employee with a service computation date of Aug. 17, 1986, and am 46 years old. If I apply for Voluntary Early Retirement Authority, what would the disadvantages or advantages be?

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Retirement date

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Q. What are the differences if my retirement date is Nov. 29, 2014, or Dec. 1, 2014? I will be retiring from the Postal Service as a Level 18 postmaster. I am retiring under CSRS. My service computation date is July 6, 1979. I will be turning 55 on Nov. 16. I have worked continuously at the Postal Service, and I have 1,848.84 hours of accumulated sick leave.

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Creditable service

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Q. I will be 56 on April 27, 2017. My service computation date is Dec. 31, 1986. I was in the Coast Guard from 1982 to 1986 and with the National Park Service since Dec. 31, 1990. Seven years ago, I bought back my four years of service to add to FERS, but when I was hired by the NPS, for three years or so, I was under a temporary not-to-exceed one year appointment that got renewed each year until the Office of Personnel Management declared those appointments no longer valid. We were basically full-time employees with no benefits. So I’m assuming those three years or so of temp employment will not count toward my time? And that you can’t buy that time back like I did my military service time?

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VERA and severance pay

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Q. I began working for the Defense Department in 1981. In 1993, I took a Voluntary Separation Incentive Pay. I received severance pay at that time. I came back to work in 1998. My adjusted service computation date is 1987. I have 26 years with DoD, and I am 52. If a Voluntary Early Retirement Authority is offered and I apply, provided I am approved, would I receive severance pay minus the amount I received in 1993 or none at all?

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Leave without pay

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Q. How does leave without pay affect your retirement status within the Postal Service?

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Service computation date

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Q. I have worked for the Defense Department since December 2008 under FERS. I was medically retired with 15 years and seven months of service from October 1984 to June 2000. I’ve bought back all of my service time. What should be changed with my service computation date? How does this affect my leave accrual time?

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Service computation date for RIF

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Q. I am retired military with 20+ years of active-duty service serving in a full-time competitive service position under FERS. Eleven months of my military time is counted as “creditable military service” since it was served in a qualifying campaign. My service computation date for leave was adjusted by 11 months for the creditable time. Should my SCD for reduction in force also be adjusted based on this time?

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Service computation date

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Q. I recently received six months of credit for a Veterans Affairs Department internship I did in 1990-91, added to my service computation date. My federal job began in March 2008, but my SCD is now September 2007. I know that periods of nondeduction service performed on or after Jan. 1, 1989, aren’t creditable for retirement purposes. So what value, if any, does it have for my SCD to now be six months greater than my retirement SCD?

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Service computation date

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 Q. I left federal service in 2008 and was rehired in 2011. My service computation date was set up to reflect the two years I left service. I would like to get that time back and keep my original service computation date. What regulation is being referenced, and whom do I speak with about taking care of this?

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Wrong retirement system?

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Q. I was active-duty military from February 1976 to February 1980. Then, from February 1980 to 1982, I was a temp employee. In February 1982, I was made permanent in the same position and placed in CSRS, where I remain today. I have paid both deposits for my military and temp time and my service computation date is February 1976. I read in your column where employees have been placed in the wrong retirement system and wanted to confirm I’ve been placed correctly in CSRS.

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Civilian deposit/redeposit

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Q. I’m a federal civilian FERS employee. I’m 54 years old and will be 55 in March. Now that I’m almost at the 30-year mark and with my minimum retirement age around the corner, I recently sat down with my retirement adviser to figure out my annuity computation numbers for retirement. My service computation date is Jan. 28, 1984. While there, I found out that I was on a not-to-exceed appointment until June 10, 1984. I filled out a request for civilian deposit/redeposit application. I found out that I had owed $48 during that time and now I owe $287 with the interest. Since I will have the 30 years this month, and by June it will be 30 years at a permanent civilian position, what would be the advantage to paying that off? If I don’t get that paid, what is the penalty when I retire either in March 2015 or in an event of an early-out?

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