The “high-3” is an essential element in the formula used to calculate your annuity. But what does the term high-3 mean? And how do you figure out what yours is?
The high-3 defined
Your high-3 is the average of your highest rates of basic pay over any three consecutive years of creditable civilian service, no matter when they occur in your career, with each pay rate weighted by the length of time it was received.
That three-year period starts and ends on the dates that produce the highest average pay. It starts on the first day that leads to the highest three-year average, not on Jan. 1, the first day of the month, or the date of a pay change.
Basic pay is the amount of salary from which retirement deductions are taken. It includes the salary you receive for your position and level as shown on an official pay table, including locality pay for the 48 contiguous states. In some cases, it may include such things as night and/or environmental differentials, premium pay, and special pay rates for recruiting and retention purposes.
However, it doesn’t include such things as bonuses, military pay, cash awards, holiday pay, travel pay outside the regular tour of duty, non-foreign area cost-of-living adjustments or lump-sum payments covering unused hours of annual leave. Nor does it include any salary supplements provided to employees who are covered by workers’ compensation.
Finding the start date
Your highest three consecutive years of average pay usually will usually be the ones that immediately precede the day you retire. If that’s the case, all you need to do to find the starting date for your high-3 calculation is to subtract three years from the date you plan to retire plus one day.
For example, if you want to retire on Jan. 3, 2015, your calculation would start with Jan. 4, 2015: Jan. 4, 2015 minus three years = Jan. 4, 2012.
One day is added because every year ends on the day before the next one begins. For example, the new year begins on Jan.1, but the old year ends on Dec. 31. So, if your birthday is Oct. 17, then Oct. 16 is the final day of the preceding year.
However, if your high-3 occurred earlier in your career, you’ll have to identify the last date on which your pay was at its highest then follow the process above to find the beginning date for your high-3.
Breaks in service
The three years used to calculate your high-3 don’t have to be continuous; however, they do have to be consecutive. For example, if your highest salary years were interrupted by a break in service, your high-3 could be made up of one period of service, a break of any length, and a second period of service. As long as your periods of service are consecutive, it doesn’t matter how many breaks in service you have.
Leave without pay
If you’ve been on LWOP for no more than six months in any calendar year, that period will be included in your high-3 calculation. Any period of LWOP beyond six months in a calendar year will not be included, and will be treated as a break in service.
Unlike LWOP, if you were called to active duty in the armed forces, the six-month limit doesn’t apply. However, as a rule, you would have to make a deposit to the retirement fund to get credit for any period of LWOP.
Non-deduction or refunded service
A deposit also may be required if you have any periods of non-deduction or refunded service that fall within your highest three years of average salary. As a rule, this situation only arises if your high-3 occurred earlier in your career and likely when you were covered by CSRS.
Putting a dollar sign on your high-3
To find your high-3 average salary, you’ll have to go back through your pay slips or Standard Form 50s to locate each pay change and how long you received it. Each pay rate must then be weighted by the length of time it was received. So, for example, if you received $75,000 for three months in a year and $78,000 in the remaining nine, your average pay for that 12-month period would be $77,250 ($75,000 ÷ 12 = $6,250 x 3 = $18,750 + $78,000 ÷ 12 = $6,500 x 9 = $58,500, and $18,750 + $58,000 = $77,250).