Federal Disability Retirement

Introduction

Federal disability retirement is a system available to most federal employees if they have been disabled and can no longer perform the “essential functions” of their jobs.  Unlike worker’s compensation, there is no requirement that you be disabled on the job in order to qualify; in fact, most disability retirement claims are filed because of disabilities that did not occur due to work.  The only requirements are that you be a federal employee with 18 months of creditable service under FERS and that you not be able to perform the essential functions of your job for at least one year.

What is the Benefit?

Federal disability retirement will ensure that you continue to receive payments from OPM that treat you as if you are still being paid your salary.  You will earn 60% of the average of your three highest federal salaries the first year, and 40% for every year thereafter until you reach regular federal retirement.  That means you continue to accrue years of federal service that count toward regular retirement while you are on disability retirement; and, perhaps most importantly, you are able to keep all of your federal health benefits.  Federal disability retirement also allows you to work in a different position so long as you don’t earn any more than roughly 80% of the average of your highest three salaries while employed with the federal government, so you do have the possibility of earning more between your new job and your disability retirement payments than you did while working for the government.

When Should I Apply?

You can apply for federal disability retirement at any time, including while you are still employed and on leave or “gutting it out” working with your disability.  If you are no longer employed, you have 365 days from your final date of employment with the government to apply.  OPM states that you should only apply after requesting accommodation, but sometimes this requirement is waived when the condition so obviously disables the employee from their job that an accommodation will certainly be unavailable.

How Do I Apply?

The Office of Personnel Management houses the necessary forms to apply for disability retirement, and your HR department should be able to assist, as well.  Be warned that OPM expects you to provide additional information above and beyond the forms listed on their website, even though this is not publicized.  Information such as medical records and a summary of your condition from your doctor should be part of your application.  There is also some legal jargon which OPM generally looks for in certain types of applications – while this isn’t a requirement, your claim has a much higher chance of success with proper terminology.

Should I Hire an Attorney?

Unlike Social Security Disability Income applications, I generally recommend that an employee hire an attorney to file for disability retirement.  The first reason is that the application process contains many hidden pitfalls compared to SSDI.  And, while your local Social Security office can competently guide you through these pitfalls in many cases, your local HR branch may have little, if any, experience with disability retirement applications, and their experience is likely limited to simply collecting the required forms and sending them.  If that is the case, then you’re likely to be caught by a pitfall.  Second, the process is very slow – applications are generally not approved or disapproved until 12-18 months after filing.  If you are denied, even if it is due to small things such as not providing updated medical records, the reconsideration will take roughly as long to process.  Most people simply cannot afford to take the chance of having their application denied then hiring an attorney for reconsideration, waiting a total of 2-3 years for any type of money to start coming in.  It is better to protect your assets, avoid taking loans, and hire an attorney up front.  We offer fixed fees for such cases and will be happy to discuss your claim with you for free.