Never Too Early for a Retirement Checkup

Most retirement preparation naturally occurs in the period just before you plan to retire, often starting around five years out, and picking up in the last year or so. But consider the following: One of the most common comments made at pre-retirement seminars is: “This is a great seminar. I wish I would have taken it 15 years ago; it is too late to change anything now.”

If you have been working for the government long enough to think you’ll retire from it at all, it is time to give retirement planning some serious thought. Here are some things you can do now to avoid unpleasant surprises later.

Review your personnel records–If you do not have records at home that include a complete history of your federal/military career, then you should pull them together. Review your Official Personnel Folder that is maintained at your agency and check it against your own records—the time to address any discrepancies is now.

Especially check the beginning and ending dates of each separate period of service. Take note of the retirement coverage: CSRS, FERS, FICA, None. What kind of an appointment was it? Temporary, intermittent, part-time, career, career-conditional? These things can affect your eligibility and computation of benefits.

Request estimates of unpaid deposits–A deposit is a payment to the retirement fund to cover periods of service that you did not contribute to the retirement fund (such as during temporary appointments and military service). A deposit can also be a repayment of refunded contributions if you had a break in service (remember, policy was changed several years back so that FERS contributions can be repaid in addition to CSRS contributions). If you find that you have service that is subject to a deposit, contact your agency’s human resource office to find out how much you owe. Remember that interest will continue to accrue until the deposit is completely paid back, or until the date of your retirement. Consider what is financially in your best interest regarding these payments.

Determine when you are eligible to retire–Attend a midcareer retirement planning workshop. Estimate how when you will be eligible to retire and how much of your pre-retirement income will be replaced with your CSRS or FERS basic retirement benefit. Don’t forget to count your potential Social Security benefit—all FERS employees will get one and many under CSRS will too, based on Social Security-covered employment separate from their CSRS time.

Keep your beneficiary designations up to date–Remember to update your beneficiary designations for retirement, life insurance, Thrift Savings Plan, and unpaid compensation (last paycheck, unused annual leave, etc.), if necessary. Consider updating if you marry, divorce, or if there is a death or a birth of child. There are separate beneficiary designation forms for CSRS (SF 2808), FERS (SF 3102), Unpaid Compensation (SF 1152), FEGLI (SF 2823), and TSP (TSP-3).

Save as much as you can in your Thrift Savings Plan account and stay informed–For many employees, the TSP will be a key to your comfort level in retirement as well as your ability to retire at your desired age. Do not underestimate your ability to prepare by saving. Use the TSP website, www.tsp.gov, to estimate the future value of your savings, to monitor your savings, and to get forms and publications.

Review your life insurance needs–What you needed 10 years ago may be different from your current needs. Determine your level of required life insurance based on the ages of your children, the remainder of your mortgage and other relevant factors.

Review your health benefits coverage–If the FEHB does not cover you, determine if you may need this coverage in retirement. Your spouse’s non-federal coverage may be subject to significant changes upon his or her retirement. Remember you generally must have five years of continuous coverage under FEHB before retirement to continue it in retirement.

Consider buying long-term care insurance—The younger you buy it, the lower the rates. Also, in the future you might not be able to medically qualify for the coverage.

Consider the what-if situations–What if you become disabled? What if you or your spouse becomes seriously ill? Do you understand what benefits would be payable? Do you have enough ready cash to carry you through an unexpected event? How much sick leave and annual leave do you have to your credit? You may need a private disability policy to fill in the gaps.

Review your expected Social Security benefits–Social Security no longer annually sends these estimates a few months before an individual’s birthday but you can get them by creating an account at www.ssa.gov. Note that these estimates won’t take into account the potential effects of reductions such as the windfall elimination provision, the government pension offset or the Social Security earnings test.

If you notice errors in your earnings history report them to Social Security. Consider your estimated benefit for financial planning purposes. Remember Social Security provides coverage in the event of a death, disability, as well as retirement.