Are there differences in benefits between military, civilian, foreign service, and other agencies?

By Carolyn Grimes
November 23, 2016

The fraction is still generally the same, but there are a couple of quirks. For the military, they have to have 20 years in to really get a pension. Federal civilian employees vest in their pensions at five years. They don't get much of a pension after five years, but they vest and they're able to be divided. Military, you basically have to have 20 years in before you get a pension at all. Foreign Service, you also have to have 20 years in to get a real pension, because otherwise they receive a very small one. Most people are unaware of that, and the Foreign Service has a quirk in that the governing law for the Foreign Service is the only one that contains a default where the ex-spouse gets 50% of the Foreign Service retirement unless it's changed by a court order. Nobody else has that. Federal agencies generally follow the federal civilian retirements. There are two different systems – technically, there are three, but one of them is really dropped out – the Civil Service Retirement System and the Federal Employees Retirement System.

Everybody used to be under the Federal Employees Retirement System, old FERS as they call it. Most of those people are already retired. CSRS then came into effect. If you are under the Civil Service Retirement System, you don't pay into Social Security when you work for the government, and you don't get a Social Security retirement based on your time in service for the government, if you have enough Social Security credits; otherwise, you would get one. Those pensions are large because they actually contain Social Security benefits already.

New FERS, which started in the mid-’80s, you pay into Social Security and you also have what's called a thrift savings plan, which is the government version of the 401(k) at a higher match than the old one. If you have a client or you are a person with a CSRS pension, that's a huge asset that's divisible in divorce. Make sure you check on that. The first one, it's also substantial asset. It's just not as big as the CSRS because they have Social Security as well.

Carolyn Grimes is a family lawyer at the law firm of Wade Grimes Friedman Sutter & Leischner PLLC in Alexandria, Virginia. To learn more about Grimes and her firm, visit

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November 23, 2016
Categories:  FAQs

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