Ask The Experts: Retirement

By Reg Jones

Break in service and vested time

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Q. I am a 29-year-old federal employee and I may have to move at some point in next few years because of my husband’s work or if I go back to school. I have been working for 2½ years and I am starting to build up my Thrift Savings Plan (all L2050; if I leave, I am hoping to return to a job in the federal government at some point). I am wondering how vesting works for both TSP and my FERS annuity. Will I have to work a consecutive five years to keep both before I can leave, or do I bank that time if I decide to come back? For example, if I work for 3½ years then leave and come back two years later and work for 30+ years, will I keep what was put into the TSP and my annuity during my first 3½ years when I come back?

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Leave without pay for more than six months

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Q. I’m a FERS employee whose federal service has been broken up by multiple periods of leave without pay due to permanent changes of station accompanying my active-duty spouse. I looked over your website and found lots of questions/answers regarding high-3 and LWOP of less than six months but not much on what happens when it is more than six months.

Based on the answers I found, is LWOP greater than six months considered a break in service and thus possibly damaging to your high-3?

For example, I worked 18 months at a base salary of $57,146 and $58,141, followed by 12 months of LWOP until I was transferred to a position with a base salary of $35,657. Will the higher salary be considered at all since I was in LWOP status for more than six months, or did my “three consecutive years” start over when I ended the LWOP status and transferred to the lower salary position?

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Government pension offset

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Q. I am under FERS with a CSRS component (10 years CSRS, 15-year break, FERS for the past 20 years). If my spouse receives Social Security benefits based on my work history and I predecease him, and he begins receiving an annuity, will his Social Security payments be reduced or possibly eliminated under the government pension offset? He has enough quarters to qualify on his own record and is receiving payments now. However, under my records, his payments would be higher. I will retire in a year, at age 66, and would like to know before we request that his payments be based on my work history.

A. If he receives an annuity from a retirement system where he didn’t pay Social Security taxes, such as CSRS, any Social Security spousal or survivor benefit would be subject to the government pension offset.

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No break in service

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Q. I came into federal service in 1995 with the Air Force (civilian). In May 2012, I began a Schedule A excepted service temporary appointment to the Army to serve in Afghanistan. The Air Force put me on leave without pay, and I have return rights and will return to my old position and location when this one-year assignment is done. I want to ensure that there is no break in service or other problem when it comes time to retire. Is there anything that I should do now to ensure that things don’t get messed up at retirement time? I want my time with the Army in Afghanistan to be counted for retirement. Will there be a problem later if, at retirement, one agency shows me on leave without pay for 12 months, while another agency has me on an excepted service appointment for that time? I’m continuing to pay into FERS while with the Army.

A. Just make sure that the Standard Form 50 cut by the Army to bring you onboard makes it into your Official Personnel Folder, along with the SF-50 separating you from that position. Having them placed between the SF-50 putting you on LWOP and the one returning you to your former position, your employment record will be seamless.

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CSRS Offset

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Q. I worked for an independent federal agency from 1977 to 1989, which had its own retirement system that was neither CSRS nor FERS. I had a break in service for one year then returned to work for the federal government (Transportation Department), where I was erroneously placed in FERS by human resources. In 2006, following a FERCCA ruling that took over 2½ years, I chose to be placed in CSRS Offset rather than FERS. I paid Social Security as a federal employee (plus through part-time jobs dating back to 1970) until I retired in 2010 with 32 years of service. I was told I would receive a reduction to my pension and/or Social Security at age 62 due to the offset. I have also read that there will be no reduction because I have more than 30 quarters of Social Security. Should I file for Social Security at age 62 since I will receive a possible reduction, or will I receive no reduction in Social Security benefits?

A. Because you are a CSRS Offset retiree, at age 62, your annuity will automatically be reduced by the amount of Social Security benefit you earned while a CSRS Offset employee. Further, you may be subject to the windfall elimination provision, which reduces the Social Security benefit of anyone receiving an annuity in whole or part from a retirement system where he didn’t pay Social Security taxes and has fewer than 30 years (not 30 quarters) of substantial earnings under Social Security. To see how that might apply to you, go to http://ssa.gov/pubs/10045.html.

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Five-year rule and break in service

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Q. I enrolled in Federal Employees Health Benefits on April 26, 1987. Resigned March 21, 1992. Temporary appointment Aug. 26, 2001, to Oct. 19, 2002. Re-enrolled Nov. 3, 2002. Resigned Sept. 27, 2008. Temporary appointment, not eligible to enroll Dec. 7, 2008, to July 3, 2010.  Re-enrolled July 18, 2010, until present. Had COBRA between enrollments. My human resources department says I should be able to continue health benefits into retirement if I work through June 20. I am planning on retiring in December. I know the Office of Personnel Management has the final say but wanted to know if this response sounds correct.

A. To be eligible to carry your FEHB coverage into retirement, you need to have five consecutive years of coverage. Those periods don’t have to be continuous. They can be broken by times when you weren’t a federal employee or when you weren’t eligible to enroll in the program. What’s important is that you be covered each time when you left and re-enrolled immediately each time that you were eligible to enroll. You need to recheck your employment records to be sure that you met the requirements and that the total time you were covered adds up to at least five years.

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CSRS and Medicare eligibility

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Q. My father was a federal employee for many years and he retired in 1983. He passed away in 2004 at the age of 80. My mother has been receiving an annuity benefit since that time. The only insurance that my father ever had was his Blue Cross/Blue Shield Federal. Why was he (and now my mother) not eligible for Medicare Part A? Shouldn’t he have been paying into the Medicare system through payroll deductions when he was employed with the Federal Communications Commission?

A. Because he was a CSRS employee who retired before December 31, 1983, he didn’t have payroll deductions  for Medicare Part A taken from his pay. It was only after that date that employees were required to have those deductions taken out.

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FEHB enrollment date

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Q. I am 64 years old and have nine years in CSRS. Four years were 1972 to 1976. At that time, I took my retirement out, then another seven months in 1985-86. I was reinstated in the federal government in February 2008, working for the IRS under seasonal but worked full time. I transferred in September with no break in service, accepting a position for the Defense Department. My service computation date gives me Feb. 4, 2004, under FERS. I signed up for Federal Employees Health Benefits at that point. I want to retire, but I need to take my FEHB with me when I do. What date would I be eligible to use as my retirement date and take with me my FEHB?

A. The law requires that you be enrolled in the FEHB program for the five consecutive years before you retire. Breaks in service won’t have a negative impact if you were enrolled when you left and immediately re-enrolled when you returned to government service. You’ll need to check with your personnel office to see if that was the case for you. If it wasn’t, the five-year period will start over from the date that you re-enrolled.

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Medical retirement

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Q. I left Veterans Affairs Department service and withdrew my money from CSRS. When I came back after less than a year, I asked human resources to make sure I was under the same retirement system but only part time since I was in school. He told me not to come back part time, changed me to intermittent and said that since I came back after less than a year, it would not change anything. I found out that it threw me into the offset. I became eligible for retirement June 25, 2012, but have some ongoing medical issues and have still been working. A new problem came up that will probably necessitate my taking a medical retirement. When the medical retirement is figured, will my annuity still be decreased like it would if I took a regular retirement?

A. Because you have at least 22 years of service, there wouldn’t be any difference between the amount you’d receive in a disability retirement or a regular retirement.

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Re-employment and five-year rule

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Q. My husband worked for a Veterans Affairs Medical Center for seven years, then left federal employment.  He is 63 and eligible for a deferred annuity. He may be returning to his previous job. Is there a certain amount of time he must be re-employed so as to be able to retire and carry his health benefits into retirement?

A. If he was enrolled in the Federal Employees Health Benefits program on the day he left, re-enrolls on the day he is re-employed by the federal government, and has been enrolled for five years, he would be able to carry that coverage into retirement.

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Military buyback and leave accrual

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Q. A buddy and I both retired from military service recently and now work as civilians for the federal government (in different departments). We both “bought back” our academy time (just under four years) and they will now count toward our civilian careers. However, my department also counted these years for leave accrual, such that I have been earning six hours per pay period.

My friend’s department did not count these years for leave accrual, so he is only earning four hours per pay period.

It seems to me that his department only referred to 1-6 of this reference: http://www.opm.gov/feddata/gppa/gppa06.pdf (which I noticed you used in this Q&A: http://blogs.federaltimes.com/federal-retirement/2012/01/30/creditable-military-service-and-leave-accrual/)

However, looking at 1-4, there is another reference to consider: The law states: “In determining years of service, an employee is entitled to credit for all service of a type that would be creditable under section 8332” … And while paragraph J-1 of that reference would seem to indicate “No” for our situation, paragraph J-2 reads as follows: (2) The provisions of paragraph (1) of this subsection relating to credit for military service shall not apply to: (A) any period of military service of an employee or Member with respect to which the employee or Member has made a deposit with interest, if any, under section 8334(j) of this title;”

Do you believe his department is correct, or mine? If mine, then how can he go about correcting this, having already tried a couple of times?

A. According to the Office of Personnel Management:

“Section 1115 of the [National Defense Authorization Act] for FY 2008 is the applicable provision of law that explicitly makes academy service time creditable for retirement — and therefore for annual leave accrual purposes.

“Section 1115 of the NDAA amended title 5 United States Code so that it explicitly made academy service time creditable toward retirement for both CSRS and FERS employees. Service is creditable retrospectively, as well as prospectively. Here is the Section 1115 text-

“SEC. 1115. RETIREMENT SERVICE CREDIT FOR SERVICE AS CADET OR MIDSHIPMAN AT A MILITARY SERVICE ACADEMY.

(a) CIVIL SERVICE RETIREMENT SYSTEM.-Section 8331(13) of title 5, United States Code, is amended by striking “but” and inserting “and includes service as a cadet at the United States Military Academy, the United States Air Force Academy, or the United States Coast Guard Academy, or as a midshipman at the United States Naval Academy, but

(b) FEDERAL EMPLOYEES RETIREMENT SYSTEM.-Section 8401(31) of such title is amended by striking “but” and inserting “and includes service as a cadet at the United States Military Academy, the United States Air Force Academy, or the United States Coast Guard Academy, or as a midshipman at the United States Naval Academy, but

(c) APPLICABILITY. The amendments made by this section shall apply to

(1) any annuity, eligibility for which is based upon a separation occurring before, on, or after the date of enactment of this Act; and

(2) any period of service as a cadet at the United States Military Academy, the United States Air Force Academy, or the United States Coast Guard Academy, or as a midshipman at the United States Naval Academy, occurring before, on, or after the date of enactment of this Act.

“In terms of credit for annual leave accrual purposes, it’s important to understand how the statute governing service credit for annual leave accrual purposes is written. 5 U.S.C. 6303 (a) provides that service which would be creditable for CSRS retirement purposes is creditable for determining an employee’s years of service for leave accrual purposes.

Once one understands the 5 U.S.C. 6303(a) text, it becomes clear that, since academy service time is creditable for retirement purposes, it is creditable for purposes of determining an employee’s annual leave service credit date.

“Here is the title 5, chapter 63 reference —

“5 U.S.C. 6303 (a)-

“…In determining years of service, an employee is entitled to credit for all service of a type that would be creditable under section 8332, regardless of whether or not the employee is covered by subchapter III of chapter 83, and for all service which is creditable by virtue of subsection (e). However, an employee who is a retired member of a uniformed service as defined by section 3501 of this title is entitled to credit for active military service only if–

(A) his retirement was based on disability–

(i) resulting from injury or disease received in line of duty as a direct result of armed conflict; or

(ii) caused by an instrumentality of war and incurred in line of duty during a period of war as  defined by sections 101 and 1101 of title 38;

(B) that service was performed in the armed forces during a war, or in a campaign or expedition for which a campaign badge has been authorized; or

(C) on November 30, 1964, he was employed in a position to which this subchapter applies and thereafter he continued to be so employed without a break in service of more than 30 days…”

“Therefore, academy service time is creditable for annual leave accrual purposes. For military retirees who have had academy service time, the restrictions of 5 U.S.C. 6303(a)(A)-(C) would of course apply.”

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FERS-FICA

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Q. I am 65 years old, have 30 years continuous military service and am retired, so I know I will get Social Security next year if I choose. However, I also now have 10 years continuous civilian federal service. My SF-50 indicates FERS-FICA. I am in a full-time indefinite status but have been a GS for three straight years and in NSPS status for two years following that. There have been no breaks in service. I also contribute 7 percent to TSP. If I retire from federal service next year, what, if any, are the retirements benefits under FERS-FICA excluding TSP?

A. Since you are at least 62 years old and have at least five years of civilian service, you can retire any time you want to and receive an unreduced annuity. That annuity would be calculated using the standard formula: 0.01 x your high-3 x all years and full months of service. If you were to apply for a Social Security benefit before reaching your full retirement age, it would be a few percentage points lower than it would be if you waited until you were 66.

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Military buyback

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Q. I left the active-duty Army with 15 years of service to take a federal law enforcement position (6c). I’ve bought back all 15 years of service, and now I have the opportunity to go back on active duty with the Army (I’ve been in the Reserve) and complete five years for an active-duty retirement. What happens to the buyback time and money when I return to my federal job if I complete the active-duty retirement after I’ve finished the military buyback payments and I have an updated service computation date?

What if I finished the federal retirement first with the military buyback years, then went on to finish my active-duty retirement? Would I lose the federal time and money from the military buyback?

A. If you were called to active duty, meaning that you had no option but to go, and returned to your former covered position, that service would be credited toward your eligibility to retire under the more generous law enforcement officer formula but only if you made a deposit to the retirement system. If you volunteered to go on active duty and returned, you’d still have to make a deposit to get credit for that time, but it wouldn’t count as covered service. Note: The active-duty service for which you have already made a deposit isn’t creditable toward a law enforcement retirement. It, like the voluntary service I referred to above, would be treated as regular service and computed accordingly.

If you retired and then went on active duty, the outcome would depend on whether you were eligible for military or reserve retired pay. If you were retired from the Reserve, receiving that pay would have no effect on your civilian annuity. However, if you retired as an active-duty member of the military, you would have to waive your military retired pay to get credit for the 15 years of earlier active-duty service. If you didn’t, those years would be deducted from your civilian annuity and you’d receive a refund of your deposit for that time.

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Break in service and buyback

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Q. I am under FERS. I worked for the Defense Department from 1987 to 1992, and left the government work. I later returned to DoD in 2005 and have been working there since. My service computation date is Aug. 23, 2000. When I left in 1992, I cashed out the retirement fund. Would I be eligible to buy back the time I cashed out in 1992 for five years of service I had accrued? If so, how could I do it?

A. Yes, you can. Just fill out a copy of Standard Form 3108, Application to Make a Deposit, indicating that you want to redeposit the money that was refunded to you, and give it to your personnel office so they can certify it. They’ll forward the form to the Office of Personnel Management. When OPM processes the application, they’ll send you a bill and instructions for making payments. You can get a copy of the 3108 in your personnel office or download a copy by going to www.opm.gov, click on Find Form(s).

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Resignation vs. retirement

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Q. The person who processes retirements at my agency told me that I could not retire with 32 years at 51 years. I am an offset employee under CSRS. I thought the Office of Personnel Management indicated that if you retire before 55 years of age, you are penalized 1/6 (no more than 2 percent for the first year and 2 percent for every after for being under 55.

So, I resigned. It’s only been a few days. The agency person said I could only retire at this age if they were offering a buyout. That seems right because I was offered a buyout about 15 years ago.

Can I file for retirement, get my benefits and health care, dental and vision care.  I think this person has it wrong. Can you explain to me?

My start date was January 1979 and I had a break of one year in 1983, but I had already worked more than four years when they put me in CSRS Offset.

Can I change my resignation from this agency to file formal retirement to Boyers, Pa.?

A. You could only retire before age 55 if you were offered either early retirement or a buyout. Anyone offered early retirement may do so if he is age 50 and has 20 years of service or at any age with 25. The annuity of that employee would, as you pointed out, be reduced by 1/6 percent for every year he was under age 55.

Any employee who is offered a buyout can accept it, regardless of whether he is eligible to retire. If he qualifies under the early retirement age and service requirements, he can do so. If he doesn’t, he can simply take the money and resign.

Because you resigned before being eligible to retire and had at least 20 years of service, you could apply for a deferred retirement at age 60. For the present, you would be able to continue your health and life insurance for 31 days at no cost to you. After that, you could continue your health insurance coverage under the temporary continuation of coverage provision for 18 month by paying 100 percent of the premium cost plus 2 percent.

Your life insurance would expire unless you decided to convert to an individual policy. Deferred retirees may not re-enroll in the health or life insurance programs.

Since you weren’t eligible to retire, you may want to approach your agency and ask if they would be willing to reinstate you.

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CSRS or offset upon rehire?

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Q. I am a returning civil service employee, first hired in August 1982 under CSRS. I was employed for 16+ years, then left for 13 years of military service. I am getting rehired in a federal position. Will I be reinstated under full CSRS or CSRS Offset? I did not take a refund, I am collecting a military retirement, and paid Social Security since 1975. I intend to work for five years. Will I be subject to the windfall elimination provision?

A. You will be placed in CSRS Offset because you had a break in service that exceeded one year. You will be subject to the windfall elimination provision unless, when you apply for a Social Security benefit, you have at least 30 years of substantial earnings under Social Security.

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Rehire and annuity

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Q. I retired under CSRS on a Voluntary Early Retirement Authority at age 46 with 26 years of service. I’m considering going back to work with the agency from which I retired. I’m still under age 55 (53 years old). What benefit would returning to full-time work be for me? Can I retire again any time after 55? Will my additional years apply to my retirement the second time around? What happens to penalties previously taken on early retirement?

A. If you return to work for the government, your annuity will terminate and you’ll be treated as if you had never retired. Although you’ll start with a zero balance of annual and sick leave, your annual leave accrual rate would be the same as if you hadn’t retired. You wouldn’t be eligible to retire again until you meet the age and service requirements, in your case age 55 with 30 years of service.

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When to retire

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Q. I served in the Army from 1955 to 1958, had a break in service to attend college, joined the Army in 1960 and retired in August 1984 as a command sergeant major. In June 1989, I became a FERS Army civilian GS-12. I am now at GS-13 step 9 (as of May 19). I will be 76 years old in November and want to retire then. Am I eligible?

A. Yes. Any employee who is age 62 or older and has five years of civilian service can retire on an unreduced annuity whenever he wants to.

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Service withdrawal payback

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Q. I withdrew $4,000 after leaving federal service. I returned and plan on retiring after 30 years of service. I intend to pay back the withdrawal. Can I repay after I retire to regain the years I lost when I withdraw? Or do I have to repay while I’m still employed in federal service?

A. You have to complete the redeposit, plus accrued interest, while you are employed by the federal government.

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CSRS Offset: resign or retire?

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Q. I am a 59-year-old Army civilian and have 30 years of service as of early August. I had left government service and did not withdraw my contributions from CSRS. I came back to the government after a more-than-five-year absence in the private sector. Hence the CSRS Offset status.

Instead of retiring, could I resign and apply for my retirement at a latter age, say 62 or later? Between now and that time, I would be working in the private sector again contributing to Social Security. I still do not understand why the CSRS pension is reduced by Social Security contributed into outside of government service. This seems to be a penalty to the government employees.

A. When you retire and are eligible for a Social Security benefit, your CSRS annuity would be offset by the amount of Social Security benefit you earned while a CSRS Offset employee. The reason is simple. You can’t get two benefits for the price of one. Any other Social Security benefit to which you are entitled based on nonfederal employment will only be affected to the extent that you have fewer than 30 years of substantial earnings under Social Security. If you don’t, you’d be subject to the windfall elimination provision.

If you leave government and later apply for a deferred annuity, you won’t get credit for any unused sick leave you had when you left, your annuity will be based on your high-3 and years of service the day you left, and you won’t be able to re-enroll in either the Federal Employees Health Benefits or Federal Employees’ Group Life Insurance programs.

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