How a Typo Could Delay Your Retirement from Federal Service

The SF 50 is the official form the government uses to determine your retirement eligibility and to calculate your pension. If there is an error or a typo, it could delay your retirement. Find out why you need a copy of all of your SF 50s, and how to review them before you retire.

Bill was looking forward to his federal retirement. But a month before his planned retirement date, Bill was told he was not eligible to retire. Turns out there was a typo on one of his SF 50s.

The SF 50 and Your Federal Retirement

The SF 50, or Standard Form 50, is the official form the government uses to calculate your retirement. Your SF 50s determine your retirement eligibility and your federal pension.

If anything about your job or pay changes, an SF50 is issued, and you should receive a copy.  If you have an increase in step, grade, pay, a bonus, a cash award…you’ll get an SF 50.

Some people have kept every SF-50. Other people have thrown them away because they didn’t realize how important these forms are.

Either way, before you file your retirement paperwork (but ideally much earlier), you should review a copy of ALL of your SF 50s. You want to make sure that they are correct, and also make sure that you have a complete record of your federal service.

The Typo That Delayed His Retirement

Bill was planning on retiring as soon as he was eligible.  He completed his retirement paperwork and submitted it a couple months in advance. Now he was just counting down the days.

But a typo on one of his SF-50s would throw a monkey wrench in his plans.

About a month before his planned retirement date – HR contacted him to say that he was *not* eligible to retire.

Upon review of his file, Bill’s HR found that one of his SF-50s along the way indicated that about 6 months of his time was not creditable for retirement.  Bill would have to work another 6 months before he could retire.

The problem was – those 6 months were supposed to be creditable.  Bill even had pay stubs to show he was paying into the retirement system during that time.

But that didn’t matter. What counts is what’s on your SF50.

Happy Ending for Her:  She Had ALL of Her SF 50s

Let me share with you another story.  One of my federal employee clients retired after 32 years of service.  But a few months after she retired, she got a letter from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).

The letter said that upon review of her paperwork, she only had 28 years of creditable service. Therefore she was not eligible to retire; her pension checks would stop (they hadn’t actually started yet); and that she would be required to return to work.

She called me as soon as she got the letter.

We got on the phone with OPM, and found out that they were missing 4 years of SF50s.

Fortunately, my client had a copy of all of her SF50s.  We found out which years were missing (turned out to be when she switched agencies).  We sent a copy of those SF50s to OPM, and she was able to stay retired.

What do you think would have happened if she didn’t have a copy of all of her SF 50s?

Getting a Complete Record of Your Federal Service

If you haven’t kept all of your SF-50s over the years, the first place to start is your OPF, your Official Personnel File.

Your OPF *should* have all of your SF50s, as well as other documents.  Ask your human resources office how to get a copy of everything that’s in your Office Personnel Folder (OPF).  Some Agencies have electronic OPFs, others still use paper files.

While we’re only talking about your SF-50s here, I think it’s important to keep a copy of EVERYTHING that’s in your OPF.

Reviewing Your SF 50s

Sort out your SF 50s by date and go over each one with a fine tooth comb.  You’re looking for the three C’s…

  • Correct – make sure everything looks correct…from your name to your job details.
  • Creditable – is the service on each form creditable for retirement?  Were you paying into the right retirement system?
  • Continuous – do you have any breaks in service, or gaps in your SF-50s?  Are you missing any SF50s?

The “Effective Date”

The SF-50 is a unique form.  There is no ‘from’ and ‘to’ date; there is only an ‘effective date’ showing when that particular form was issued.  So an SF50 is good…until the next one is issued.

So how do you know when the next one is issued?  When you only have one form, you have no way of knowing how long it was valid for.  You can only tell by looking at the next SF-50.

But what if you’re missing the next SF-50?  How would you know there is a problem?

Look at blocks 15 – 22 in the “TO” section of the form you’re reviewing.  They need to match up exactly with blocks 7 – 14 in the “FROM” section of the next SF 50 you have.  If they don’t match up – you have a problem.  You might have a typo, or you might be missing an SF-50.

What if You Find Something Wrong?  

If you find something wrong, the first place to ask for help is with your HR.  They might be able to help you track down missing SF50s, resolve errors or typos, or even have an SF 50 recreated based on other records.

But all of these things take time.  Don’t expect your HR office to fix a problem from 20 years ago the week before you retire.  Depending on the issue, it may take months to get resolved.

So don’t put off reviewing your SF-50s.  You want to give yourself as much time as possible to correct and problem if you find one.

What Happened to Bill?

When my client called me about his co-worker Bill, he wanted to know if I could help Bill.  My client knew that I’d helped other clients with creditable service issues.  I told my client I’d be happy to talk with Bill…but Bill never called.

I found out later that Bill had to delay his retirement about a month in order to get his SF50 issues resolved.

Whose Fault Was It?

Some people hear this story and want to blame Bill’s HR.  While there might be some blame to go around, the only person who I can tell you is absolutely responsible for this issue is Bill.

Bill should have reviewed his SF50s when he received them, or at least before he filed his retirement paperwork.  If Bill had reviewed them, he would have noticed the error and had time to fix it without having to delay his retirement.

Bill also should have requested a Certified Summary of Federal Service well before he was planning to retire.  This also would have brought his SF 50 issue to light before he filed his paperwork.

Don’t Wait To Review Your SF-50s

If you haven’t reviewed your SF50s, make a plan to do it now.  If you find you’re missing a form, or there is a typo, you want to give yourself as much time as possible to get it corrected – before it affects your retirement.

About the Author

Micah Shilanski is a Certified Financial Planner™ professional who specializes in helping federal employees get the most out of their retirement benefits. Micah helps his clients with tax planning, retirement planning, federal retirement planning, estate planning, and investment advice. Plan Your Federal Retirement is a dba of Shilanski & Associates, Inc., an Alaska Registered Investment Advisor, with securities offered through Summit Brokerage Services, Inc., Member FINRA/SIPC.