» Getting Paid by the Government

Will the amount I collect be related to the degree of my disability?

ANSWER: No. The amount you collect has nothing whatsoever to do with the degree to which you are disabled; nor does it have anything to do with how or where you were disabled; nor does it have anything to do with the cost or duration of the treatment you might require.

How much will I collect each month on disability retirement?

ANSWER: The amount you collect each month depends on the federal government retirement system in which you are enrolled. FERS has a simple formula; CSRS requires some calculations.

FERS Employees: First, the good news. Apart from any potential cost of living increases, you will receive 60 percent of your "average pay" the first year you collect and 40 percent of your "average pay" during every other year you collect. "Average pay" is the average amount you earned each year during your three highest consecutive paid years of federal civilian employment.

Now the bad news: all FERS employees are required to apply for Social Security, even if they believe that they are ineligible. The majority of FERS employees who apply are not eligible for Social Security benefits, so their disability retirement annuities will not be affected.

FERS employees who are eligible for Social Security benefits will have their 60/40 percent of average pay annuities adjusted as follows: during the first year, for each dollar that Social Security gives you, FERS will deduct one dollar from your annuity. (This is known as a "wash," a transaction in which gains and losses are exactly equal.) During the second and all succeeding years, for each dollar Social Security gives you, FERS will deduct sixty cents from your annuity. In this case, there is some benefit from Social Security eligibility, but the value of that benefit is greatly diminished.

CSRS Employees: The good news is that you don't have to apply for Social Security. If you do apply and are eligible, your disability retirement annuity won't be reduced. Another bit of good news is that some CSRS employees will receive disability annuities higher then the 60 percent ceiling paid FERS employees. But there's bad news for CSRS employees, too. Although the law assures you a "guaranteed minimum" disability retirement annuity, that minimum can be far lower that the 40% floor paid to FERS employees.

A CSRS annuity is predicated on "average pay," (defined above) just as is a FERS annuity. CSRS employees with less than 22 years of actual service also need to consider an additional factor, known as "creditable service." You compute your "creditable service" by calculating the number of years until you reach age 60, and adding that number to your number of years of federal civil service.

Apart from adjustments in the annuity resulting from the potential application of COLA (cost of living adjustment) rules, CSRS employees can determine their approximate annuities by applying one of the following three rules:

  1. If you have 22 or more years of "creditable service," but less than 22 years of actual service, you will collect 40 percent of "average pay" and you don't have to bother with any other calculations.
  2. If you have 22 or more years of actual service, then don't worry about creditable service at all. Your annuity will be computed under the general formula for regular retirement and you will receive more than 40 percent of "average pay."
  3. If you have less than 22 years of "creditable service," you will receive less than 40% of "average pay," and to find your approximate monthly disability retirement annuity, use the chart that follows.

How long will I be paid that monthly annuity?

ANSWER: You will be paid that monthly annuity for as long as you remain disabled from your government job, even if you are able to work in another job outside of government and in fact do so. Your monthly annuity will stop only if: (1) you die (unless you provided for a survivor's annuity); (2) you are reemployed by the federal government; (3) you voluntarily give it up; (4) you recover from your disability; or (4) you are "restored to earning capacity."

Can my disability retirement entitle me to additional payment (for nursing services, wheelchairs, etc.)?

ANSWER: No. There are no additional payments available from disability retirement. However, disability retirement is not a bar to your pursuing any other entitlements that may be available, such as from a private insurance policy, Social Security, or the like. However, you are not permitted to collect workers' compensation (except in unusual cases).

If I've exhausted all of my sick and annual leave, can I go on leave without pay (LWOP) pending approval of my disability retirement?

ANSWER: Probably, but there is no right to LWOP. It is always left to the discretion of the agency. However, most agencies exercise their discretion in favor of employees seeking disability retirement and allow them to go into a LWOP status for a period of up to one year. Approval of a request for LWOP may require some negotiating. Your physician may have to provide a written response to questions similar to those on the Physician's Statement form used for disability retirement.

If the agency won't grant LWOP, can I quit and still apply for disability retirement?

ANSWER: Yes. Even if you resign from your job, you can still apply for disability retirement. You must, however, have already filed your application with OPM at the time of your resignation or do so within a period of one year from your separation date.

If I have sick leave left, should I exhaust it before I go on disability retirement? What about annual leave?

ANSWER: It is probably best to exhaust your sick leave before going onto disability retirement. There are at least two ways to do this. First, you can use up your sick leave once you have been awarded disability retirement, holding your retirement annuity in abeyance until you have exhausted your sick leave. Second, you can use all of your accumulated sick leave in advance, beyond the amount necessary for OPM to approve your application. You can do this by leaving just enough sick leave to get you through the process. The problem here is that no one can guess how much time OPM will take to come to a decision.

The advantage of using up your sick leave, no matter how you do it, is that you will be paid at your full salary for your time on sick leave instead of being paid at the lesser rate of the disability retirement annuity. While the unused sick leave of CSRS employees is credited to time in service and may have potential value for retirement purposes (this is not so for FERS employees), it's still usually much more profitable to exhaust sick leave first, thereby recouping it in the form of dollars.

Annual leave is different. You should exhaust any "use or lose" annual leave before going onto disability retirement. However, there is no special reason (except perhaps for tax purposes) to exhaust any other accrued annual leave, since you will be paid a lump sum for any annual leave remaining in your leave account when you go onto disability retirement.

How long will it take to prepare my application for submission to OPM, and how long thereafter can I expect to wait until OPM approves my application? Also, how long will it be before I get any money?

ANSWER: That part of the application that you must complete yourself (Applicant's Statement, Form 3112 A) requires several hours' work. However, getting the "Physician's Statement" (Form 3112 C) into just the right shape often takes weeks and sometimes months. Thereafter, the agency's bureaucracy can take an additional six to eight weeks before the application can be transmitted to OPM.

The timing of OPM's approval appears related largely to happenstance and apparently the whim and fancy of those running the show. For instance, OPM has no procedure whatsoever for expediting applications due to financial need. It claims to expedite the applications of the terminally ill on an ad hoc basis, irrespective of financial need, but refuses to expedite the applications of those threatened by financial ruin.

In my experience, case approval time varies from 10 weeks in a tiny minority of potentially news-sensitive cases (e.g. those concerning AIDS), to an average of five or six months. Some applications, however, languish inexplicably for a year or more, and have required complaints to the Inspector General to get the cases processed.

It may take up to several months, after winning, before you receive any money from OPM. By this time, if you've stopped working and are on LWOP, you will be owed a good deal of annuity back-payments. Usually, OPM makes an initial lump sum distribution of part of the back-payments owed. Thereafter, there may be another lump sum distribution of any other back-payments owed, usually together with the first of the regular monthly annuity payments.

What determines the date from which the monthly annuity begins?

ANSWER: Assuming that you are disabled at the time, your annuity will start from either (1) the day after your government pay ceased; or (2) the day after you were separated from government service. If your government pay ceases and then starts up again, the resumption will cut off your right to collect disability retirement for the period during which your pay had ceased. Therefore, make sure that once your pay has ceased for any considerable time, that you do not receive any further pay from your government job before finally being separated.

Example: Peter, a government employee, applied for disability retirement and went on LWOP status for nearly a year, pending approval of his application. At his boss' urging he returned to his government job part-time for two weeks. After he won disability retirement, OPM refused to pay him his annuity for the nearly one year he had been out of work. By going back to work for the government, Peter forfeited his retroactive disability annuity for the nearly one year period. He would have been awarded the annuity for that period if he had not worked those two weeks for the government or if he had worked for a non-government employer instead.

Are disability retirement payments taxable?

ANSWER: Yes. Disability retirement payments are normally taxable as ordinary income. There are, however, some exceptions. For instance, persons who, in addition to meeting OPM's standard for disability retirement, are totally and permanently disabled for any gainful employment may be eligible for a special tax credit. Similarly, in certain circumstances and in certain states, persons may not have to pay state income tax on their federal annuity. Because the rules are complex and can have significant monetary consequences, you should consult a tax expert.

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