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Myth versus fact: OPM disability retirement

When you applied for your federal job, you may or may not have known it, but you signed up for a career full of paperwork and bureaucracy. Sure, there are plenty of good things about federal employment, such as the chance to serve your nation and make a difference. But the paperwork can be downright ugly at times.

This is particularly true if your injury or illness ever makes it impossible to perform your job’s listed duties. According to the OPM, you may be eligible for disability retirement. But you won’t receive it until you find your way through the maze of applications, forms and supporting documents. If you’re not careful, you might not receive it at all. Many people lose out on their benefits because they fail to separate the retirement myths from reality.

Myth: You need to be injured at work to claim disability retirement

OPM disability is not workers’ compensation. There’s no requirement for your injury or illness to be work-related. Instead, you must be able to show you meet the six basic requirements:

  • You served at least 18 months under the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS)
  • You suffered a disability during your service—though not necessarily as a result of it—that leaves you unable to fulfill your current duties
  • Your injury or illness is expected to last one year or longer
  • Your agency is unable to accommodate you in your position or at your current grade and pay level
  • You submitted your application within one year of your separation
  • You already filed for social security disability

Any medical condition that meets these requirements can qualify.

Myth: My agency will help me file my application

This is partially true. Your agency can provide you with assistance. But as the OPM states, it is your responsibility to provide everything the OPM needs to weigh your claim.

Here, it’s important to note that the process is quite complicated. There are all kinds of forms to fill out, and your agency may have a conflict of interest. They owe you assistance, but they also want to save money and get back to work. The result is they may offer superficial or subpar assistance, and your claim may be denied.

According to a recent interview with an OPM spokesman, the two most reasons for disability retirement denials are:

  • Incomplete applications
  • Insufficient medical documentation

Myth: My agency plays a role in determining my eligibility

Your agency needs to certify that it cannot accommodate your current position or offer you a new role at the same grade and pay rate. But it does not approve or deny your application.

Only the OPM approves or denies federal disability retirement applications. The OPM’s decisions can, if necessary, be appealed.

Myth: I dont need a lawyer until my claim is denied

Again, this is partially true. You can fill out the forms and provide the supporting documentation all by yourself. But the earlier you work with an experienced attorney, the more likely you are to meet approval.

Given how slowly the review and appeals process can run, it may be in your best interest to work with an attorney from the outset. An attorney can help you both navigate the paperwork and communicate your needs to your doctor. This increases the chances you have all the supporting evidence you need, and if your claim is denied, filing right the first time around can strengthen your appeal.

Fact: Theres a lot at stake

Your life doesn’t stop just because an injury or illness makes it impossible for you to continue in your job. However, that injury or illness can throw everything into chaos and uncertainty. And the money you need to stabilize yourself? It can put that at risk, too.

As a federal employee, you may be eligible for disability retirement. Getting what you’ve earned is another matter. There’s always paperwork. If you’ve learned anything during your career as a federal employee, it’s likely that you need to fill out all your forms the right way.

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