Why Do I Care About The SF 50?
The SF 50 is the official form the government uses to determine an employee’s retirement eligibility and to calculate the employee’s retirement pension.
If there is a mistake or a typo on an SF-50, it will affect the employee’s CSRS or FERS retirement.
For example, if one of the employee’s SF-50s didn’t make it into his or her’s OPF (Official Personnel File) or got lost along the way – that time may not be credited towards the employee’s retirement.
SF 50s are the only form of proof an employee has that s/he actually legally worked during a certain period in time. Many may not realize this, but pay stubs or an LES does’t count.
Leave and Earnings Statements are proof of what the government paid … and they offer proof of time and attendance … but there’s no proof that the government paid correctly for the hours documented by the LES.
Let me give you a real-world example which severely impacted me, personally, and would have caused huge problems in my divorce asset division scheme had it not been corrected before I retired.
I was a regular, CSRS enrolled, GS-13. For reasons too complex to go into here, I voluntarily changed to a lower grade (GS-12) position.
But the SF 50 which caused the change to take place had an error in the coding which determined how my pay, in my new, lower grade, was to be calculated. This was an error by a technician in my servicing personnel office at the time.
It never occurred to me to verify for myself how I was being paid. After all, I had changed to a lower grade. My pay went down. How much could go wrong there?
Well, it turns out that the coding error caused me to be paid too much starting the January following the change to lower grade. Not all that much, but since there are 2087 hours in a Federal Pay year, it doesn’t take a lot of time before the error starts to add up to a non-trivial amount of money.
The error went unoticed until after the next January (regular federal pay raise time), and then was caught by an auditor in DFAS (the Defense Finance and Accounting Service … the folks who actual release the government’s money to DoD active employees and retirees.
Luckily for me, I had a good lawyer who prepared the COAP (Court Order Acceptable for Processing) which divided my retirement annuity with my ex-spouse.
Imagine how screwed I would have been had my COAP divided the annuity (as many are written to do) by actual dollar amounts rather than a percentage. Wow, I’m not sure I even want to think about that one.
After years (yes, years) I finally had all the error’s corrected, my overpaid amounts returned to the government and my own monthly check and my ex-spouse’s monthly apportionment running smooth and correct, but I bet I lost ten years of stress-related aging during the process.
And don’t forget, when you need the “other sides” help during matters which apear to lessen their share, acrimonious is one of the more polite words to describe the employee/ex-spouse relationship.
Regardless of your current divorce intentions, and regardless of how correct you believe your federal career records to be, I strongly advise you sit down and document your career, in terms of SF 50s, from the day you started federal service up to the present.
It sounds like a daunting task, but it won’t be if you have the SF 50s in your personal file already. Usually an employee only gets one per year, plus one for changes in grade, cash awards and such, so you’re only looking at, perhaps 50 pieces of paper for a 30 year lifespan.
If there are any missing, NOW would be the time to track them down while you are still an active employee and have a servicing Civilian personnel Office. It becomes much harder as years in retirement go by.
And by all means if you have any non-standard periods of pay … when you change to a lower grade and are on Save Pay or Save grade status, make sure you check your hourly rate of pay against the civilian pay tables for that pay year and the Civilian Pay Manual for that period of time … because correcting these errors after the fact, and especially after a divorce, can be a bear. trust me.
For any attorneys reading this … am I saying you should become some sort of Federal Pay Clerk? Well, no, not really … but I suggest, whether your client is the federal employee, or the divorcing spouse, that both sides document the Federal employee’s service times and rates of pay. For the non-employee side, make copies of all SF 50s part of the discovery process. I really think this is a wise move.
The employee’s pension may well be one of the highest value items, and certainly the most complex asset to manage, in the entire divorce situation. It deserves a lot more attention than it typically gets.
If the employee side of the divorce case is trying to hide anything, or even is totally innocent, but still in error, there’s going to be little or no recourse if the spouse doesn’t have his/her own consecutive record of SF 50s to fall back on.
There was a famous old commercial advocating timely changes of engine oil where a mechanic used to tell the viewer, “Pay me now, or pay me later”. The employee SF 50s in a divorce involving a Federal employee is very much that type of situation.
During pre-divorce and discovery, it might entail a few hundred to a few thousand dollar’s worth of billable time to get those SF 50 ducks in a row … but after the fact? Can’t say, but almost for sure it will cost thousands and thousands more to rectify omissions and errors.
Here’s an excellent resources with a lot of addional information on SF 50s and their importance to the Federal employee (and his/her spouse).