The Military Retirement System
If you are considering making the military a career -- or you have already made that decision, and just want to know more about your benefits -- then this will be of special interest to you.
This week's feature is the first of a two-part report looking at the current Military Retirement Systems and the choices facing most today's active duty members.
The military retirement system is arguably the best retirement deal around. Unlike most retirement plans, the Armed Forces offer a pension, with benefits, that starts the day you retire, no matter how old you are. That means you could start collecting a regular retirement pension as early as 37 years old. What's more, that pension check will grow with a cost of living adjustment each year.
However there are many factors that determine exactly how much your pension will be. Over the past twenty five years, the government has made some significant changes to the military retirement system.
If you entered the service:
|Prior to September 1980 you are eligible for the Final Pay retirement system. |
|Between September 8th, 1980 and August 1986 you are eligible for the High 36 system. |
|After August 1986 you are under the REDUX system, which was changed again to Career Status Bonus/Redux (CSB) system. |
All of these retirement systems have a common thread: if you stay in the armed forces for 20 or more years, you are eligible to receive a pension based on a percentage of your basic pay, and if you stay in for a maximum 30 years, you are eligible for 75% of your basic pay. But that's where the similarities end and the confusion really begins, because each of these systems determines your amount of pension differently.
There are four major differences between the retirement systems. If you joined the military after August of 1986 you especially need to thoroughly understand these differences, because when you reach the 15 year mark in your military career you will have to make a choice of a lifetime about which plan you want for yourself.
The major differences are the basis for determining your highest earnings, the multiplier, the Cost of Living Adjustment, and the Career Status Bonus.
Although you have no choice in the basis for calculating your basic pay, it is a very important detail. For instance the Final Pay retirement system bases the amount of pension on a member's last month of pay.
For Example: if you retired at twenty years of service on the final Pay retirement system, you received 50% of your final months pay as your pension, and that percentage increases by 2.5% for each additional year of service.
Under the High 36 and CSB/REDUX systems a member's pension is based on the average of the highest 36 month's base pay. So if you retire at twenty years under these systems you would get a percentage of the average of 36 months (3 years) of your highest basic pay, and like the "final pay" system you would get an increase of 2.5% for every year that you stay in (past twenty years of service).
The multiplier is the percentage of your base pay you receive for each year of service. For the Final Pay and High 36 systems you earn 2.5% per year of service. That means you get 50% for 20 years of service up to a maximum of 75% for 30 years.
The multiplier for the CSB/REDUX system is 2% per year for the first 20 years, but you get an increase to 3.5% for each additional year passed 20. That means you get 40% for 20 years, but up to a maximum of 75% for 30 years. That is a significant difference.
The Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA)
All three retirement systems have an annual cost of living adjustment. This is a subtle, yet very important detail. Over the lifetime of your retirement the cost of living adjustment could more than double your retirement check.
The COLA for the final pay and high 36 systems is determined each year by the national Consumer Price Index. But the COLA for the CSB/REDUX retirement system is the Consumer Price Index minus 1%.
For Example: A retiree under the High 36 may see a COLA increase in their retirement check of 3.5% in 2007, while a retiree under the CSB/REDUX plan would get a COLA increase of only 2.5%.
Note: There is one more twist to the COLA for the CSB/REDUX retiree. At age 62 the COLAs and multiplier are readjusted so that the High 36 and CSB retirees get the same monthly pay.
The Bonus and the BIG decision
Now the CSB/REDUX system gets a bit more complicated. Under this latest system when you reach your 15th year of service, you must choose between taking the "CSB/REDUX" with a $30K cash bonus (approximately $21K after taxes) and a 40% pension check, or the High 36 retirement system with no bonus and a 50% pension check. This is a huge decision and cannot be made without some serious consideration and a clear understanding of the details.
The following table gives a quick summary to help understand the differences between the retirement systems:
|Last Month's Basic Pay||2.5% for each Year of Service|
|Average of the Highest 36 Months Basic Pay||2.5% for each Year of Service|
|Average of the Highest 36 Months Basic Pay||3.5% for each Year over 20|
CPI - 1%