Substantial earnings and military buyback


Q. I served 9.5 years in the Air Force and just short of five years for the FAA under CSRS. When I left the FAA in late 1987, because of a misunderstanding of how CSRS worked, I thought I had to withdraw my contributions to CSRS because I had fewer than five years.

Counting most of my Air Force time, I have 39 years of substantial contributions to Social Security. I returned to government employment two years ago and am considered CSRS Offset.

Since I plan to retire in four years, I am trying to determine my best option regarding paying back military time as well as withdrawn, and how that will affect my overall retirement income. Payback would come out of my 401(k)s.

From what I’ve determined from government websites, the windfall elimination provision does not apply if I have 30 or more years of substantial contributions.

But I have been unable to determine if this includes CSRS Offset and if making the military contribution subtracts from my years of substantial contributions. In other words, do I damage myself if I use 401(k) funds to make the military deposit?

A. If you had fewer than five years of CSRS-covered service when you left and had been away for one year before you returned, you should have been placed in FERS, not CSRS. That would be true regardless of whether you left you contributions in the fund or took them out when you left.

Further, if for some inexplicable reason you did have a choice between CSRS Offset and FERS, you would have had to make that decision on your return to government employment, not two years later.

Putting all that aside, all Social Security covered employment is counted when determining if a CSRS-covered employee has 30 years of substantial earnings under Social Security.


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Reg Jones was head of retirement and insurance policy at the Office of Personnel Management. Email your retirement-related questions to

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