Federal disability retirement is a benefit available to federal civil service employees and postal workers who become medically unable to perform their jobs. It's administered by the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS), which replaced the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) in 1987.
To qualify for federal disability retirement benefits, you must apply for this benefit and meet certain medical and non-medical criteria. The application for federal disability retirement can be broken down into six steps based on the elements you'll need to prove you're eligible for a federal disability retirement annuity.
First, to be "eligible" for federal disability retirement benefits, you must:
(Note: A CSRS federal employee must have five years of creditable service in a position under the CSRS to be eligible for benefits.)
Learn more about federal disability retirement eligibility.
Second, you must convince the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) that you're medically disabled. For the purposes of federal disability retirement, OPM will consider you disabled if you have a medical condition that has caused a "service deficiency in performance, conduct, or attendance" or has made you unable to perform "useful and efficient service."
What does that mean? In a nutshell, you have to be unable to perform the essential functions of your current (or most recent) FERS or CSRS position because of your disability. Unlike Social Security disability, you don't have to prove that you can't work any type of job.
By far, this is the most difficult element to prove. Here's the type of evidence that OPM will consider:
OPM will only consider your subjective evidence of disability and pain (for example, your written statements and testimony) when they're supported by competent medical evidence. You'll need your doctor to provide a medical analysis of your condition that includes its effect on your ability to perform the job duties of your position—and that's backed up by objective evidence.
Third, you'll need to establish the "continuity" of your disability. You must show OPM that your disabling medical condition is expected to continue for at least one year from the date you file your disability retirement application.
Fourth, you must prove that because of your medical condition, an accommodation or reassignment by your agency wouldn't enable you to do your job. You'll have to show that:
If you're under age 62 and applying for federal disability retirement benefits, FERS requires you to also apply for Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) benefits. (But you don't need to qualify for SSDI to be able to get federal disability retirement.) Learn how to apply for SSDI.
To apply for federal disability retirement, you'll need to start by filling out the following forms.
When you submit these forms, you'll also need to include documentation that shows you've applied for SSDI.
If OPM denies your application for federal disability retirement, you can appeal, but you can't delay. You'll have just 30 days to request reconsideration.
If OPM denies your timely request for reconsideration, you have the right to appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB). At MSPB, an administrative law judge (ALJ) or panel of judges will decide your case.
Once you've exhausted your administrative appeals, you can take your case to federal court.
Federal disability retirement benefits don't always last until you reach retirement. The OPM can stop paying your federal disability retirement if you are under age 60 and your condition improves enough that OPM considers you:
If OPM has terminated your disability retirement benefits because your condition has improved, you can get your benefits reinstated if your condition gets worse again—if you're under age 62. The standards for seeking reinstatement are somewhat different depending on whether your annuity was terminated because:
If you're going to seek reinstatement of previously terminated federal disability retirement benefits, you apply with the OPM. No special form is needed, but you will need to follow OPM's reinstatement application guidelines.
The FERS application process can be daunting and overwhelming. Decades of case law have refined the process and helped establish the criteria above. But you might need to provide the OPM with more or less information, depending on your unique situation.
Consider working with a disability lawyer if you have doubts that you'll be approved for a federal disability retirement annuity or if you've been denied. An experienced disability retirement attorney can work with you and your doctor to help you build a stronger case.
Updated December 14, 2022