In an ideal world, you should begin planning for retirement at least a year ahead of the day you expect to retire. However, we aren’t living in ideal times. An early retirement offer, a “buyout,” a RIF or potential changes in the law can trigger a quick retirement decision. If so, you need to use whatever time you do have to plan ahead. If you don’t, you may have a rude awakening.

So, how do you use what time you have wisely?

First, take a pre-retirement counseling seminar offered by you agency. If your agency doesn’t offer a pre-retirement seminar, consider taking one offered by a private sector firm. In some cases, your agency will pay for it.

Second, meet with an agency benefits counselor so you can go through your Official Personnel Folder (OPF) to make sure that it documents all your federal employment (including any military service), the effective dates of each pay adjustment, your insurance coverage, and any designations of beneficiaries you filed. If there is something missing or inaccurate in your OPF, the two of you will need to straighten it out.

Assuming that your OPF is up-to-date and accurate, verify when you’ll be eligible to retire and that if you have health benefits and/or life insurance coverage, you’ll be able to carry it into retirement. That’s not a consideration for long term care insurance and dental/vision insurance.

Third, ask for an estimate of your retirement annuity. If you are a FERS employee, you’ll also need an estimate of your Special Retirement Supplement or, if you are 62 or older, your Social Security benefit.

What that annuity estimate looks like may depend on what I call the four “ifs”.

If you owe any deposits for prior service (including military service) where retirement deductions weren’t taken or redeposits if you took a refund of your retirement deductions, you’ll need to find out what effect that will have on your annuity. If you decide to make a deposit or redeposit, you can get the necessary forms from your benefits counselor or download them at www.opm.gov, click on Find Form(s), then click on Standard Forms and scroll down to SF 2803 (CSRS) or SF 3108 (FERS).

If you are currently receiving military retired pay, you’ll want to assess the impact of that on your retirement annuity. Under certain, limited circumstances, you may be able to receive both. However, in most cases, you’ll have to waive your military retired pay and make a deposit for that time before you retire in order for that time to be included in your civilian annuity calculation.

If you owe any money to your agency, you’ll want to arrange a repayment schedule in order to avoid having your annuity offset to recover the debt.

If a court order assigns a portion of your annuity to a former spouse, you need to know by how much that will affect you.

Four, fill out you retirement application. You can get copies from your personnel office or download them at www.opm.gov, click on Find Form(s), then click on Standard Forms and scroll down to SF 2801 (CSRS) or SF 3107 (FERS). After you’ve filled out the form, give the original to your benefits counselor for review and keep a copy for yourself. If there are any problems with your application, you’ll learn soon enough. If there aren’t, congratulations!