Whether to accept a buyout is a highly personal decision based on an individual’s financial and career situations. Those who were planning to get out of the government anyway and never go back accept them readily. But for the large majority of employees, there is a far more complicated set of considerations, including giving up the career progress they have made in the government for the sake of a check that might not last long versus their prospects if they stayed on and potentially went through a reduction-in-force.

But with more agencies offering buyout and early retirement incentives and cutbacks in retirement benefits a hot topic in Congress, it’s only prudent to at least think about it.

Unfortunately, buyout and early out offers often come with very small “windows”—a matter of perhaps six weeks or so is common—and that leaves little time to make such a crucial life decision. Given such a short string, many employees simply reject the offer. On the other hand, some employees who leap at the offer would have done better to look first.

In either case, preparation in advance can help avoid such mistakes.

“Most employees know generally when they can retire and many are counting down the days,” MSPB said in a recent newsletter. But employees should check their official personnel folders to make sure they are truly eligible for the benefits they may be counting on, it said.

“Due to OPM’s retirement processing times and the time needed to update or correct information in your OPF, check your OPF well in advance. Even if you are not near retirement eligibility, it makes sense to check your OPF at regular intervals and even keep your own personal copy of your OPF,” it said.

In particular, pay attention to:

Date of Birth. Retirement eligibility is calculated based on age and years of service, but employees “may never have actually checked to make sure your date of birth is correct.”

Service Computation Date. This date is used for numerous computations, from the amount of leave you earn to when you are eligible to retire. But due to breaks in service and other factors, it may not be the same date as the date you started work. “We recommend you verify this date and all beginning and ending dates of the service that will be used to calculate your retirement eligibility date.”

Promotions/Step Increases/Pay Increases. The effective dates of each of these are important when calculating your high-3 average salary, which in part determines your annuity.

Beneficiary Forms. Ensure your life insurance and other beneficiary records designate the people you intend to receive benefits in the event of your death. “Often problems are identified only after retirement, when the employee is no longer able to correct them.”

Health Insurance. If you plan to retain your FEHB in retirement, make sure your file shows your complete coverage for the five years immediately prior to retirement.

Post-1956 Military Service Deposits. If you have made deposits for military service after 1956, ensure there is documentation to show your deposits. If you would like to make such deposits, they must be made before you retire. Contact your local HR office.

Once you have such facts in hand, you can think through the ins and outs of the offer. For example, with early retirements, employees under CSRS are subject to an annuity reduction of 2 percent per year under age 55, a reduction in benefits that is permanent. And taking a buyout means giving up a host of benefits that would come from being separated in a RIF, including eligibility for a full severance pay entitlement that likely would be much higher than the buyout amount in most cases, job placement assistance, eligibility for unemployment compensation, and the right to return to the government within five years without having to pay back the full, pre-tax buyout amount.

Those are complex decisions but one thing about them is clear: you can’t make them rationally unless you are working from a solid foundation of knowledge about your situation. And that takes preparation._