From the Homefront: Blended Retirement System Opt-In Training is for spouses too

Twice a month, Coast Guard All Hands will feature “From the Homefront,” a column for Coast Guard spouses by Coast Guard spouse Shelley Kimball. Shelley has been married to Capt. Joe Kimball, chief of the office of aviation forces at Coast Guard headquarters, for 16 years. She currently serves on the board of directors for the Military Family Advisory Network.

Written by Shelley Kimball

Deciding when to retire is a decision that affects the whole family for years to come. Because families will now have to decide which kind of retirement system to use, there are new resources available for spouses too.

Beginning next year, active duty members with fewer than 12 years of service or reserve members with fewer than 4,320 points can choose to enroll in the Blended Retirement System (BRS). That covers a lot of people. According to the Department of Defense (DoD), only about 20% of active duty members will stay until 20 years. The other 80% leave the service without retirement benefits. The BRS is supposed to remedy that.

So to aid in understanding the pros and cons of the Blended Retirement System, DoD opened an online instruction portal for spouses to access. You can find it here.

Portrait of Shelley Kimball.

Portrait of Shelley Kimball.

I took the class so I can tell you what it’s like and what to expect. It takes a few hours to complete, but you can stop and go back later. A caution though: You have to use the same computer and login with your first and last name exactly the same or you will lose your progress.

First I’ll explain how the Blended Retirement System will work, and then I’ll explain how the class went.

The Blended Retirement System changes the equation for calculating retirement pay, adding in a continuation pay benefit, while also adding in a matching contribution to the Thrift Savings Plan.

The BRS equation is two percent X years served X base pay at retirement. (The “High Three” equation, which is the current system, is 2.5 percent X years of service X average of the highest three years of pay.) Like the current system, this annuity is available for those who have served 20 years or more.

In addition to the new equation, the BRS offers a continuation pay benefit for both active duty and reserve members. This is a retention bonus for those who have served for 12 years, and it requires additional years of service upon acceptance. It amounts to about 2.5 months of pay for active duty members and half of a month of basic pay for a reserve member.

The third component of the BRS is an automatic government contribution of one percent of basic pay to the Thrift Savings Plan, which is a retirement savings plan. It will become fully vested after two years of service, meaning you can take what you have accrued in it with you. The government will match up to four percent for those who contribute five percent.

One more thing to add to all of this: The BRS allows for a lump sum payment out of the annuity. For those who serve 20 years or more, they can ask for a lump sum payment of either 25 percent or 50 percent out of what they would be getting monthly. That sum is then removed from the monthly payment, but only up until around age 67. Then it goes back to the full monthly annuity.

Capt. Richard M. Kenin cuts his cake during his retirement ceremony at Coast Guard Air Station Miami, May 23, 2014. Kenin's aviation tours of duty included Aviation Training Center Mobile, Alabama, Coast Guard Air Station St. Augustine, Florida, Coast Guard Group/Air Station North Bend, Oregon, and Coast Guard Air Station Houston, Texas, and Air Station Miami. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Mark Barney)

Capt. Richard M. Kenin cuts his cake during his retirement ceremony at Coast Guard Air Station Miami, May 23, 2014. Kenin’s aviation tours of duty included Aviation Training Center Mobile, Alabama, Coast Guard Air Station St. Augustine, Florida, Coast Guard Group/Air Station North Bend, Oregon, and Coast Guard Air Station Houston, Texas, and Air Station Miami. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Mark Barney)

If you are wondering where this system came from, it was the result of a study by the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Committee. It suggested that by making a blended system, one that included the TSP for those who do not serve for the full 20 years, the government could provide a retirement benefit to everyone while still saving some money in the end.

Training overview

The training was not developed for us, the family members. It is clearly for servicemembers. DoD is recommending families participate in the training so we are educated in what it all will mean to us financially. The same training you watch is mandatory for all servicemembers who are eligible for the BRS. There is a separate link for them to gain access to the system. (The spouses course is a standalone course, and theirs is Common Access Card enabled.)

It will take about two hours or so, and don’t expect to have a ton of fun here. But it is really informative. It will take you through each element you need to understand the system step-by-step. I was able to stop and restart very easily. (Again, just be sure you are taking it on the same computer and the name you use is entered exactly the same.)

Have a notebook and pen handy while you follow along the instruction. If you miss something someone says in the training, you can’t simply rewind. You have to restart the page, but the pages are relatively short, so it isn’t too bad.

You can’t really search back through sections to remind yourself of what was in each unit– you will have to watch the unit over again. There is a transcript function, but it is only for the page you are on. I think the best thing to do is read up a little on BRS and then watch the training.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Tony Bennett gets tight hugs from his children during the Cutter Diligence homecoming March 5, 2016 in Wilmington, North Carolina. Families, friends and well-wishers welcomed home Cutter Diligence crew in Wilmington Saturday following a 59-day patrol in the Florida Straits in support of Operation Vigilant Sentry and Operation Blue Hammer. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Mary Ann Holmes/Atlantic Area Ombudsman)

Petty Officer 2nd Class Tony Bennett gets tight hugs from his children during the Cutter Diligence homecoming March 5, 2016 in Wilmington, North Carolina. Families, friends and well-wishers welcomed home Cutter Diligence crew in Wilmington Saturday following a 59-day patrol in the Florida Straits in support of Operation Vigilant Sentry and Operation Blue Hammer. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Mary Ann Holmes/Atlantic Area Ombudsman)

The system will tell you a few times to go to Military OneSource for financial counselors and assistance getting financial education. That’s not available for us Coasties because we are housed under the Department of Homeland Security. Instead, we have our own. Go to Coast Guard SUPRT to get access to financial counseling information. The Coast Guard also has a link to finding the financial support we can access.

I encountered some technical difficulties during my training, and I could not get help from the program’s help desk. My training module got stuck at the end, and it would not let me move forward to take the final test and get a certification. I contacted the training support the two ways it recommended: by email and by phone. There was no one to take my call, so I left a message. I never received a call back. I did get an email back, but the person at the help desk said that because I was taking the standalone course, he can’t help track the problem. As all of us [spouses] are going to be taking the standalone course, it doesn’t bode well for our help options.

The training shows retirement calculators to help families see the financial difference between the BRS and the existing system side by side. This looks like an excellent resource, but it is not going to be available until the end of February at the earliest. We’ll update this column and the resources section when the calculators come out.

So, in a nutshell, the training is not developed for spouses and there is little to no assistance if you have trouble with it. But the training is absolutely worth taking because this decision will affect your family’s finances for years to come.

Things to remember about the BRS:

  • The opt-in for the Blended Retirement System will be January 1, 2018 through December 31, 2018.
  • Those who are eligible are active duty members with fewer than 12 years of service and reserve members with fewer than 4,320 points.
  • This is your choice. Once you choose, you cannot change your mind.
  • If you do not choose, you will stay in the “High Three” system.
  • Everyone who enters into service after January 2018 will automatically be enrolled in the BRS.

What questions or comments do you have about the Blended Retirement System? Let us know in the comment section below.

Resources:

USCG Blended Retirement System: The Coast Guard’s list of resources for better understanding the BRS.

DoD military compensation: Blended retirement explained from the Department of Defense’s perspective.

FAQs about the BRS: A list of frequently asked questions with and index to help you find what you need.

Thrift Savings Plan: More information on how the TSP works and how to participate.

USCG Personal Financial Management Program: The Coast Guard has a list of how to find available financial specialists available to assist. They are either through command, work-life offices or CG Support.

Coast Guard pay and retiree information: This is the website for the Pay and Personnel Center, the Retiree and Annuitant Services Branch.

Coast Guard SUPRT: Coasties have access to financial counselors. Call 855-CG SUPRT (247-8778) to arrange for a consultation.

Other From the Homefront stories like this: We previously reported on where to find financial education assistance, what retirement is like for spouses, and the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Committee’s study results.

** From the Editor — Coast Guard’s Office of Human Resources and Force Readiness Command are in contact with Joint Knowledge Online (JKO). JKO is aware of the issue with the standalone training and is working to find solutions **

The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not to be construed as official or reflecting the views of the Commandant or of the U.S. Coast Guard.

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