Ask The Experts: Retirement

By Reg Jones

Disability retirement

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Q. I am 51 (I turn 52 in April) and have been a law enforcement officer for 23 years, plus four years of military time that I bought back. Because of torn retinas, I have lost all depth perception permanently and have been placed on light duty pending further medical review. I will likely be ruled unable to perform in a law enforcement position and unfit for duty. I wasn’t planning on retiring, but now it might be forced on me with a FERS disability retirement. If that is the case, what is better — to just retire voluntary, before they rule on me, or wait and go out on a disability retirement? I’m also confused on the SS supplement, unless you lose that because you’ll get SS benefits too.

A. Retiring voluntarily is a certain thing. Applying for disability retirement isn’t. There’s more paperwork involved, a longer wait for a determination and uncertainty about whether your application will be approved.

Assuming that either way would result in your retirement, you can check the math to find out which one makes better financial sense. As a regular retiree, you’d receive 34 percent of your high-3, plus the special retirement supplement once you reached your minimum retirement age. As a disability retiree, during the first 12 months you’d receive 60 percent of your high-3 minus 100 percent of any Social Security disability benefit you were entitled to. From that point forward, you’d receive 40 percent of your high-3 minus 60 percent of any Social Security disability benefit.

You wouldn’t be entitled to the special retirement supplement, even if you weren’t approved for a Social Security disability benefit.

Note: The standards for a Social Security disability benefit are much higher than those for FERS disability retirement. In the latter case, you only have to be sufficiently disabled that you can’t perform useful and efficient service in your own job or one of similar grade and/or pay. In the former, you have to be completely disabled for all gainful employment.

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Lower-graded job for health reasons

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Q. I am a 50-year-old, 25-year U.S. Fish and Wildlife employee hoping to get to full retirement in several years. I have developed Parkinson’s disease, however, and may be unable to successfully fulfill my current role as a biologist. If I take a lesser-grade job available, will my pay stay the same or will it drop? Also, if I go out on disability through this original job, can I get a random nonfederal job at a local business to keep active?

A. If you take a lower-graded job, your pay would only remain the same if your current salary fell within the pay range of the new job and you were placed in a step that was closest to it. If you applied for FERS disability retirement, you would also have to apply for Social Security disability benefits. If your application for disability retirement was approved, you could continue to work if what you did didn’t prove that you had recovered from your disability and your earnings didn’t exceed 80 percent of the current rate of pay for the position you left. If you were also approved for Social Security disability benefits, those benefits would end if you were able to engage in substantially gainful work.

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Firefighter disability and military service

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Q. I’m a federal firefighter and will be put on disability status due to an on-the-job injury. I have reviewed FERS and OPM information regarding the 60 percent of high-3 for first 12 months and 40 percent thereafter. I bought back 10 years of military time when I got hired. I have been working as a fireman for 13 years. What will happen to my military time when I go on disability?

A. Nothing. Your disability annuity would be based on your high-3 average salary and a set of formulas that depend on the amount of your Social Security disability benefit, if any.

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