The turn of a year is a common point not only to retire but also to make a career change, or at least to resolve to do so soon. If you’re thinking of leaving government without having reached retirement eligibility, you’ll need to decide if you should ask for a refund of your retirement contributions when you leave.

As a federal employee, every pay period you’ve contributed a portion of your salary to the Civil Service Retirement and Disability Fund. The amount varies. CSRS employees contribute more than FERS employees, and some FERS employees contribute more than others depending on their date of hire. And if you are a special category employee, such as a law enforcement officers or firefighter, you contribute more than others who are otherwise equally situated.

As a result, the amount of your refund will vary according to your employment category and retirement system. It will also vary, of course, by your salary level and how long you’ve been contributing to the fund.

One more thing: If you are a CSRS employee, you won’t receive any interest on your contributions. If you are a FERS employee who has been employed for a year or more, you’ll receive market rate interest on your contributions. And that interest will be compounded annually up to the month before OPM makes the payment.

Is it a better idea to take the money and run or leave it in the fund? If you have at least five years of service, you later will be eligible for a deferred retirement—see my recent columns on that subject—so long as you don’t take a refund. In that case, it might be better to leave your money in the fund. While the annuity you’ll later be entitled to may not be large, it will be something, and it will be paid for life and inflation-protected.

If you have less than five years of service and expect you’ll never return to the government to reach that number, though, taking the refund may make sense. Otherwise that money will be lost to you. Note that if you take a refund and do later return to work for the government despite your earlier expectation, you’d need to redeposit that amount plus interest to get credit for that prior time in your annuity computation.

If you’ve made up your mind to take a refund, you’ll have to get a copy of the appropriate form, either from your servicing personnel office (SF 2802 for CSRS, SF3106 for FERS) or download it at www.opm.gov/forms.

You’ll need to send the completed form to OPM, Retirement Operations Division, P.O. Box 45, Boyers, PA 16017-0045. Before you can receive a refund, you’ll have to notify your spouse and any former spouse that you have applied for a refund. If the refund would end any court-ordered right they have based on future benefits, you may be barred from receiving that refund.