Eligibility for Federal Disability Retirement Benefits

If you're a current or recent federal employee, you might be eligible for federal disability retirement benefits.

By , J.D. · University of Missouri School of Law

If you're a current or recent federal employee, you might be eligible for federal disability benefits in the event you become medically unable to perform your job. The federal disability retirement system can be hard to understand and navigate for those unfamiliar with it.

Let's look at the basic requirements for federal disability retirement, and some other things to keep in mind if you're considering filing a claim—including how federal disability benefits are calculated.

What Are the Basic FERS Eligibility Requirements?

The current retirement system for federal workers and postal employees is called FERS, the Federal Employees Retirement System. This system replaced the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) in 1987, but some federal workers who started before 1987 will still be covered by CSRS.

To be eligible for disability retirement benefits under FERS, all of the following must be true:

  • you worked as a federal civilian or postal employee for at least 18 months (it's five years if you're applying under CSRS)
  • you have a physical or mental disease or injury
  • your medical condition makes you unable to perform "useful and efficient service" in your current position—meaning you can't do an essential element of your job, and
  • your disability must be expected to last at least 12 months from the date you file the application.

In addition, your federal agency must state the following:

  • the agency tried and failed to accommodate your medical condition in your current job, and
  • the agency was unable to reassign you to another nearby position in the same agency at your grade or pay level.

FERS: On-the-Job Injuries vs. Pre-Existing Conditions

To qualify for FERS disability retirement, it's not necessary that your disability resulted from an on-the-job injury, work-related condition like stress, or occupational disease, as in a workers' compensation case. Injuries and illnesses that happen off the job can also qualify you for medical retirement.

It also doesn't matter whether or not your disability is the result of an injury or illness you suffered while employed by the federal government or the United States Postal Service (USPS). If you can't do your job because of a pre-existing condition (one you had when you took the job) that's gotten worse over time, you can still qualify for FERS disability retirement.

Proving Occupational Disability vs. Total Disability

Unlike Social Security disability, to qualify for FERS disability retirement, you're not required to show that you're "totally disabled." You need only have an "occupational disability" to qualify for federal medical retirement.

While Social Security's "total disability" standard requires you to show that you can't do any kind of work, the occupational disability standard means you only have to show that you can't perform the duties of your current federal job. Specifically, to qualify for FERS disability retirement, you must show that your medical condition prevents you from doing at least one essential job task.

For example, let's say you're a letter carrier who suffered a back injury in a car accident. To do your job, every day, you carry a heavy mailbag as you walk from house to house delivering mail. Sitting, standing, and walking aren't really problems for you, but due to your back injury, you can no longer lift more than 10 pounds and so, you can no longer lift your mailbag.

Carrying the mailbag with you as you walk your route is an essential job task, so being unable to perform that task means you have an occupational disability. That could qualify you for federal disability retirement.

Working While Receiving FERS Disability Retirement

Can you work while receiving disability retirement? Yes, but there are some conditions. To continue receiving FERS disability retirement and work, you must:

  • work in the private sector, and
  • not earn more than 80% of your federal pre-disability salary.

This amount includes only earned income, not income from investments or rental properties.

Can You Get FERS Retirement for Job-Related Stress?

If workplace stress caused a physical or mental condition that keeps you from being able to perform your job duties to render "useful and efficient service," you can get federal disability retirement benefits. The cause of your medical condition generally isn't relevant to determining whether or not you're eligible for federal disability retirement.

To convince the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) that job stress has caused you to have a disability, you'll likely need to provide both:

  • objective medical clinical reports, and
  • a diagnosis that connects the stressful or hostile work environment to your physical or psychological disability.

But the OPM might look for evidence to show that your disability is "situational"—that is, your medical condition would go away if you went to work in a different workplace.

Applying for Federal Disability Retirement

You must apply for federal disability retirement while still employed by the federal government or within one year of separation from federal employment. Note that "separation" from employment isn't necessarily the date you became disabled or even the date you stopped working. (For instance, sometimes an employee will continue in a paid duty status until their disability retirement is approved.)

You apply for FERS disability retirement by filing forms with your federal agency. But if you've been separated from federal service for more than 31 days, you should submit your disability application directly to the Office of Personnel Management.

Once OPM receives your application, it'll make an initial determination based on the following:

  • your medical records
  • your doctors' opinions, and
  • the application you completed.

Appealing a FERS Denial

If you're denied FERS benefits, you have 30 days to ask for a reconsideration, during which time you should add new or updated material to your record that could be helpful to your case.

If you're denied again, after asking for a reconsideration, you can appeal to a quasi-judicial agency known as the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB). At the MSPB, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) or a panel of judges will decide your case.

Only after you've exhausted all your administrative appeals can your case proceed to federal court. Throughout the process, pay close attention to filing deadlines and other instructions for submitting your appeal. A single missed deadline can torpedo an otherwise winnable claim.

Do You Have to Apply for SSDI to Get FERS Benefits?

Like many long-term disability policies, the federal disability retirement program requires you to apply for Social Security disability benefits (SSDI). If you're approved for Social Security, the amount of your SSDI benefits will be subtracted from your FERS benefits. But the offset amount changes over time.

For the first year that you get SSDI, there is a 100% offset—meaning the entire amount of SSDI you receive each month will be subtracted from your monthly FERS benefits. The following year, the offset drops to 60%—meaning 60% of the amount of your SSDI is subtracted from your FERS benefit. But the amount of your FERS disability benefits will also change after the first year (see below).

Because it's substantially easier to be approved for federal disability retirement than Social Security disability, it's common for someone to qualify for FERS disability but be denied SSDI.

How Much Will You Receive in FERS Benefits?

How much your federal disability benefits will be depends on your age and length of federal employment. Your benefit amount is calculated using different methods depending on whether or not you qualify for voluntary retirement.

How Much Does Federal Disability Pay If You Don't Qualify for Retirement?

If you're under age 62 and you don't qualify for voluntary immediate retirement, here is the formula for your benefit. It's a bit complicated, but you can expect to receive about 60% of your "high-3 average" salary the first year you get benefits and 40% thereafter. "High-3 average" means you take the consecutive three-year period where you made the most money (not including overtime or bonuses) and you take the average yearly salary from that three-year period.

Keep in mind that this amount can be impacted by the Social Security disability offset mentioned above.

Once you turn 62, your federal retirement benefit will be recalculated based on the annuity you would've received if you had continued to work and didn't retire until age 62. How much you'll get will depend on whether you have more or less than 20 years of service with the federal government or USPS (see below).

How Is FERS Disability Calculated If You Qualify for Retirement?

If you're at least 62 years old or you qualify for immediate voluntary retirement, you'll receive your "earned" retirement annuity based on how long you worked for the federal government or USPS. It's basically a two-tiered system:

  • If you're younger than 62 (or if you're 62 or older but have less than 20 years of service), you'll receive 1% of your high-3 average salary for each year of service.
  • If you're at least 62 years old with at least 20 years of service, you'll receive 1.1% of your high-3 average salary for each year of service.

Here are some examples.

For more details, visit the OPM's annuity computation page.

Keeping Your Federal Disability Retirement Benefits

Once you've been approved for federal disability retirement, the Office of Personnel Management might require you to provide current medical evidence that shows you're still eligible for benefits. You might also be asked about your current employment status.

If you're younger than 60, OPM can contact you to request verification of your condition at any time. If you're over 60, OPM will only review your continued eligibility if you request that the office find you recovered and you provide medical evidence of your recovery.

OPM will likely terminate your federal disability retirement benefits if:

  • you fail to respond to an OPM review request
  • your condition improves (you recover), or
  • you don't continue to obtain regular medical treatment for your condition.

For more information, read our article on getting federal disability retirement reinstated.

Updated May 3, 2023

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