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What is the Federal Employee Retirement System (FERS)?

What is the Federal Employee Retirement System (FERS)?

The Federal Employee Retirement System (FERS) is the primary retirement plan for U.S. federal civilian employees. Established in 1987, FERS replaced the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) and provides retirement benefits from three different sources. This article aims to provide an in-depth understanding of FERS, including its structure, eligibility criteria, and benefit categories.

FERS Structure and Benefits

FERS is a defined-benefit plan that offers retirement benefits based on an employee's salary and years of service. The benefits are distributed as annuities, paid monthly to retired employees starting one month after they leave government service. The program encompasses three key components: Social Security benefits, a Basic Benefit Plan, and the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP).

  1. Social Security Benefits: FERS participants receive Social Security benefits, which are a vital part of their overall retirement income. Employees contribute a portion of their salary towards Social Security each pay period. These benefits are portable and continue after leaving government service.

  2. Basic Benefit Plan: The Basic Benefit Plan is a core component of FERS. Employees are required to contribute a percentage of their salary each pay period towards this plan. The payment amount is nominal and ensures eligibility for retirement benefits based on age, years of service, and contributions made to the plan.

  3. Thrift Savings Plan (TSP): The TSP is a retirement savings plan similar to a 401(k) available to federal employees. It offers various investment options, including index funds, and features lower fees compared to most 401(k) plans. The TSP consists of automatic government contributions, voluntary employee contributions, and matching government contributions. The government matches up to 5% of the employee's salary, with a total possible employer contribution of 5%.

FERS Benefit Categories

FERS provides benefits in four distinct categories based on when they are paid out:

  1. Immediate Retirement: This benefit category starts 30 days after an employee ceases working. Eligibility for immediate retirement includes being 62 years old with at least five years of service, or being 60 years old with 20 years of service. If an employee waits until their minimum retirement age (ranging from 55 to 57, depending on birth year) and has between 10 and 30 years of service, their benefit is reduced by 5% for each year until they turn 62. Employees with 20 years of service only need to wait until age 60 to receive the full benefit.

  2. Early Retirement: Early retirement is available in specific involuntary separation cases or voluntary separations during major reorganizations or workforce reductions. The eligibility criteria for early retirement differ from immediate retirement and may have specific conditions depending on the circumstances.

  3. Deferred Retirement: Deferred retirement allows employees to delay receiving benefits. To be eligible for deferred retirement, an employee must have completed five years of service and be at least 62 years old. If an employee reaches their minimum retirement age but is not yet 62, their benefit is reduced by 5%. However, those who are 60 years old with 20 years of service can defer payments at the full benefit amount.

  4. Disability Retirement: This benefit category applies to individuals who become disabled while employed in a FERS-eligible position due to a disease or injury. The disability must last more than a calendar year, and the employing agency must attest that the employee's condition cannot be accommodated. The disability retirement plan considers the individual's useful and efficient service in their position.

Eligibility and Other Considerations

FERS is available to federal government employees, including civilian and military personnel. The annuity portion of FERS is considered a pension and is based on a formula that takes into account the highest consecutive three years of pay and the number of years of service.

Federal employees can start receiving FERS benefits at their Minimum Retirement Age, which is typically between ages 55 and 57. Additionally, a supplementary payment may be available until they reach age 62, at which point they can begin drawing their Social Security benefits.

It is worth noting that if a FERS participant is married, the annuity automatically adjusts to become a joint-life annuity unless the spouse opts out by signing a form.

Summary

The FERS includes the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) and other benefits available to employees of the federal government.

The eligible features of FERS may be different for the employees of different branches and agencies of the government. Civilian and military personnel are included in FERS.

FERS is essentially comprised of the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP), which is a 401(k)-type plan for federal employees, and, in most cases, a Federal employee retirement annuity. The Thrift Savings plan has lower fees than most 401(k)s and offers several kinds of index funds to employees.

It has an employer matching contribution of a full 3% and 50% up to 5% (for a total of 4%) as well as an automatic employer contribution of 1% which brings the total possible employer contribution to 5%.

Most federal employees are eligible for the annuity, which is essentially a pension, based on a formula which looks at the highest consecutive 3 years of pay and the number of years of service.

Federal employees are eligible to start receiving benefits at their Minimum Retirement Age, generally, which can be between age 55 and 57. There is also another supplementary payment available to them until they reach age 62, at which point they can start drawing their Social Security benefits.

The annuity automatically adjusts to be a joint-life annuity if the employee is married, unless the spouse signs a form to opt-out.

How Does a 401(k) Compare With Other Retirement Plans?
How Does My Retirement Age Impact My Social Security Benefits?

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