The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has provided information for federal employees to help them better understand how they can avoid delays in getting their retirement application packages processed.
Why is it Important to Avoid Processing Delays When You Submit Your Federal Retirement Application?
When a federal employee first submits a retirement application, he will get what is known as “interim” annuity payments until OPM finishes fully processing the retirement application. These payments represent a portion of the final annuity payment and are usually made on the first business day of each month.
The intent of interim payments is to provide federal employees with some retirement income while OPM is processing the retirement application.
Only federal income tax is withheld from interim payments. Health and life insurance coverage will continue while federal employees are receiving interim pay, and OPM will begin withholding health and life insurance premiums retroactive to the commencing date of the annuity once processing the retirement applications has been completed.
OPM has a significant backlog of retirement claims submitted by federal employees who have recently retired. As of the time of this writing, the current OPM retirement backlog stands at 21,596 total claims as of the end of December 2022. As bad as that may sound, it was much higher just a few months earlier when it hit 36,349 at the end of March 2022.
I write monthly articles updating our readers on the status of the retirement backlog; you can find them on our website by doing a search or at this tag: #backlog.
Because of the size of the OPM retirement backlog, processing delays are not at all unusual. OPM says that it aims to process retirement applications within 60 days, but it often takes longer than that. Some FedSmith readers have reported that they have waited over a year for their retirement claims to be fully processed.
You can see how this makes for an undesirable combination for newly retired federal employees: they get interim annuity payments which are only a portion of their final (and full) annuity payments, and processing delays are common which means more time spent receiving interim payments.
Given the situation, federal employees would want to do as much as they could to help reduce the likelihood of delays in getting their retirement applications processed by OPM.
You Need a “Healthy” Retirement Application Package
The key to avoiding processing delays with your retirement application is to ensure that you submit what OPM calls a “healthy” application to the agency when you retire.
OPM defines a healthy retirement application is one that is a “complete and accurate package that does not have to be developed for missing, inaccurate, or discrepant information.”
The agency further adds that “early and accurate” are two keys to helping get your retirement application processed efficiently. This is a quote from one of OPM’s retirement FAQ’s:
You can help reduce delays in processing by submitting your application in advance and by making sure your Official Personnel Folder (OPF) is complete. If you submit your paperwork early, your personnel and payroll offices will be able to complete their action before your retirement date.
What Does a Healthy Retirement Package Look Like?
The following are some of the core components that are likely to be part of a federal employee’s retirement application. OPM has provided additional details about each as to what is required to be considered a healthy retirement package. Much of this is handled by your agency’s human resources department, but it can be helpful information for federal employees to have. Many of these forms are available on OPM’s website.
Retirement Application: SF 2801 and SF 3107
First and foremost, the retirement application must be “complete, original form, signed and dated by the applicant.” These forms are the Application for Immediate Retirement under the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) and the Application for Immediate Retirement under the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS).
These are some common areas to check for errors:
- Survivor election in Section F of the SF 2801 or Section D of the SF 3107, must be indicated, regardless of whether the individual is married or not, an election must be selected.
- If a married applicant elects less than the full survivor annuity, spousal consent must be provided and the election on the application must agree with the spousal consent
- The Court Order question 2 in Section E of the SF 2801 or Section C of the SF 3107 must be answered.
- Verify that there are no scratch-outs, white-outs, lineouts, or any other type of corrective actions on this form.
Certified Summary of Service: SF 2801-1 and SF 3107-1
All periods of creditable military service must be listed and also whether or not a deposit has been paid in full.
Spousal Consent Form: SF 2801-2 and SF 3107-2
When a married applicant elects less than full survivor benefits, a spousal consent from must be submitted. The survivor election on the spousal consent must match the annuitant’s election in Section F of the SF 2801 or Section D of the SF 3107. The election must be notarized by a notary public. Some common areas to check:
- The form must be signed and dated
- The date the spouse signs must match the date the notary signs.
Federal Employees Health Benefits (FEHB)
The single most common error on retirement applications is failure to document the five years of coverage requirement for carrying FEHB into retirement. OPM says that acceptable proof of coverage includes:
- SF 2809 or other enrollment forms
- SF 2810
- History reports from on-line enrollments that show both the old plan and new plan, and the effective dates for each change
- Copies of screen shots or other documentation from on-line enrollments that show both the old plan and new plan, and the effective date for each change
- Evidence of coverage as a family member under another’s FEHB enrollment. Acceptable evidence of coverage under a family member’s FEHB is a copy of the SF2809, a signed letter from the carrier (as with Tricare/CHAMPUS for a family member)
- A signed memorandum from the agency detailing the continuous coverage of the employee to prove the 5-year requirement and coverage on the retirement date (corroborating documentation showing payroll deductions for at least 5 years should also be submitted)
- Evidence of TRICARE/CHAMPUS enrollment
Federal Employees Group Life Insurance (FEGLI)
FEGLI errors are among the most common on retirement applications. In order to carry FEGLI into retirement, documentation of the employee’s FEGLI status and eligibility to continue coverage must be included in the package. At a minimum, OPM must have proof of the 5 years of coverage immediately prior to retirement. Acceptable proof of coverage includes:
- SF 2817 or SF 176
- SF 50s showing any FEGLI changes in the 5 years immediately prior to retirement
Individual Retirement Records (IRR) – SF 2806/3100
OPM must have a SF 2806/3100 on file for all periods of covered service. OPM says that these are some common areas to check:
- Service history must be complete
- Additional pay status must be indicated for any year applicable
- Part-time tours of duty and/or hours worked, intermittent and/or WAE time worked and any LWOP must be documented
- Unused sick leave balance must be posted; if uncommon tour of duty and for VA part-time nurses and physicians, the expiration date of sick leave must be provided
- FEHB Premium Conversion (FEHB-PC) breakdown for offset service beginning with CY 2004 reflecting contributions withheld at the CSRS Offset rate (generally 0.8%) and the full CSRS rate (generally 7%)
What Else Can I Do?
Putting more of your retirement under your control will serve you well also. These are just a few ideas to bolster your savings for use later in life:
Make a Budget
As the saying goes, failing to plan is planning to fail. If you have a financial plan laid out for when you retire, you will have less stress since you will know what your expected income and expenses will be. Create a budget for several months of reduced income on interim annuity payments and make sure that your total income and savings will cover your household expenses for that time period.
Save More in the TSP
You will get a match of up to 5% from the federal government which is free money, plus the long-term rate of return of money invested in the TSP’s stock funds regularly makes many federal employees millionaires over the course of their careers. You own and control your TSP and can take money out of it when you want after you are retired, no waiting on OPM required.
Have an Emergency Fund
If you get to retirement and find yourself getting interim annuity payments, you will sleep better at night knowing your expenses are covered. Having an emergency fund gives you peace of mind by having a cushion for the period of reduced income as well as any unexpected expenses that might arise (i.e. car breaks down, unexpected medical event, etc.).
Work With a Financial Planner
A financial planner can help you put all of these parts together to get a solid plan both saving for retirement as well as how your household will operate when you get there.
A federal employee’s retirement application is a complex package of documents that leaves a lot of room for errors. Be sure to consult with your human resources office for questions about your situation and to work with them to ensure you provide OPM all of the information needed to help ensure that you submit a healthy retirement package to OPM to increase the likelihood that it gets processed quickly.