Expert's View

News flash! OPM is taking forever to process retirement applications and the luckier ones are receiving only a portion of the annuity to which they are entitled for many months. If you haven’t heard or read that in the news, you’ve probably been e-mailed, twittered or IM’d about it. As a federal employee who is getting close to retirement, you want to know if it is true. Well, I’m here to tell you that it is. And here’s why.

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First, OPM is still working with paper records. Efforts to automate the process have failed more than once. Second, because of budget cuts, far fewer employees are being asked to handle the same or, in some cases, a heavier workload. Third, there are so many legislated rules, variations on the rules, and exceptions to the variations, that it takes a lot of time to find out who is entitled to what. Finally, the retirement applications that agencies transmit to OPM are often incomplete, lacking key documents. As a result, follow-ups are necessary both with an agency and the retiree.

If you are getting close to retirement, what can you do to avoid being sucked down into the processing whirlpool? The most important thing is to plan ahead. OPM once issued a pamphlet called Thinking About Retirement. What it recommended then is just as sound today as it was years ago. Let me summarize what it had to say.

One year before retirement, go to your personnel office and review your Official Personnel Folder (OPF) or equivalent, checking all your periods of service, where you worked, and the beginning and ending dates to be sure nothing is missing, for example, periods of part-time or intermittent service or active duty service in the military. See if your designation of beneficiary for your life insurance is there and is up-to-date. Make sure that you will meet the five-year requirement to carry your FEHB and FEGLI coverage into retirement. Have someone in the office verify that you will meet the age and service requirements to retire. Then, get them to give you an estimate of your retirement annuity. If you find that you need to make a deposit or redeposit to the retirement system, they can tell you how to do that.

Six months before retirement – and this is only necessary if you are receiving retired military (not reserve) pay – ask your personnel office to compare what your annuity would be if you made a deposit for that period of active duty service against what it would be without a deposit. They can also tell you if you would have to waive your military retired pay, if you qualify for that, to get credit for that time. In most cases you would. If you decide to combine your military and civilian service and have to waive your retired pay, they can help you do that.

Four months ahead of retirement get the forms you’ll need to retire and complete them. If you have any questions about specific items on the form, that’s the time to ask them. When you’ve completed the forms, submit them to your supervisor or administrative officer and keep a copy for yourself.

Having taken the time to do the job right, your case is more likely to move speedily through your personnel and payroll offices when you do retire. And, because your case file will be complete, with no loose ends, it will make it through OPM with less delay than others, especially now. That’s because OPM is changing its approach to case processing, hiving off the straightforward, well-prepared cases from those that look like they were assembled out of a waste basket, and giving the former priority attention.

There’s an old saying, "Prior planning pays off." So don’t act like one of my readers, who asked if there was any minimum number of days required to do the paperwork before letting his agency know that he was retiring. In other words, could he do it the day before he left. I told him sure, but unless he had the simplest career on record – one agency, one job, no complications – he shouldn’t expect to receive his first annuity check for a loooong time.