The best way to help yourself toward a successful retirement is careful, long-term planning. But not everyone will have years to plan their retirement.

You may become one of those looking at a much closer departure time – perhaps because of an offer of early retirement or because of some personal situation – who need to compress the preparation time. That’s why it pays to get your information in order long before you expect you might retire, just in case.

Look over your Official Personnel Folder (OPF). Make sure that all periods of civilian and military service are recorded there.

To take out an extra bit of insurance, ask a benefits specialist to document your service history for you on an SF 2801-1, Certified Summary of Federal Service (CSRS) or SF 3107-1 (FERS). With this information in hand (corrected if necessary), you can confer with a benefits officer and determine the date on which you will be eligible to retire. You can also confirm that you will have been covered by the Federal Employees Health Benefits (FEHB) program and the Federal Employees’ Group Life Insurance (FEGLI) program for five full years before the date you elect to retire so you can carry that coverage into retirement.

Next, you’ll need to do some sound financial planning. Start by getting an estimate of what your retirement annuity will be when the time comes; and, especially for those covered by FERS, what you will likely receive from Social Security. Your agency personnel office can help you estimate your retirement annuity; you can get an estimate of your Social Security benefit from SSA.

To add some muscle to your retirement income, you’ll also need to consider maximizing your investments in the Thrift Savings Plan. Remember, nothing smarts worse than being eligible to retire, having the urge to do so, and then discovering that you can’t afford to.

As the date for your retirement comes closer, you’ll need to update those dollar numbers, explore your TSP options, and reconfirm your retirement eligibility date (and eligibility to carry your FEHB and FEGLI coverage into retirement), and check your OPF to make sure that your Designation of Beneficiary forms are up-to-date. If you are married, you’ll also need to review the options available for survivor benefits.

Finally, you need to set the date, fill out the paper work and send it to your personnel office so they can be sure that everything is okay. You should do this about two months before retirement. While it might be fun to surprise everyone by deciding today that you’re going to leave tomorrow, you could end up having to come right back because your paperwork was screwed up.