AFSA Newsletter - October 2014

October 2014, Volume 28, Number 5

Divorce Decrees, Court Orders and Foreign Service Annuities

Divorce is a sensitive topic, but an all too familiar occurrence in the Foreign Service. It can be a difficult and emotionally trying time and, unfortunately, the stress and hardship can recur when you least expect it, at the time of retirement.

Cases arise from time to time in which a divorced Foreign Service employee finds that his or her divorce decree or court order does not meet the State Department’s strict language requirements for waiving the ex-spouse’s entitlement to a portion of his or her annuity under Section 861 of the Foreign Service Act.

In the unfortunate event of a divorce or separation, it is vitally important to be aware that any spousal agreement or court order that waives retirement benefits that are due under the Foreign Service Act to a former spouse must do so expressly. The term "expressly" is used in the Foreign Service Act and has been interpreted as requiring that any spousal agreement or court order that waives retirement benefits that are due under the Foreign Service Act to a former spouse must specifically refer to Foreign Service retirement benefits and cannot merely mention generic retirement benefits, nor can they refer erroneously to FERS retirement benefits.

To expressly waive benefits, any spousal agreement or court order must sufficiently identify the retirement system involved. To leave no room for doubt, the words Foreign Service, FSRDS or FSPS must appear in the document.

AFSA recently met with representatives from the State Department’s Office of Retirement and Office of Employment Law to discuss this issue and find out what the term “expressly” means and why they have come to this interpretation. One of the main reasons for the current interpretation of a valid divorce decree has to do with language found in the Foreign Service Act of 1980. The language is there to protect the former spouse and states what benefits are provided as default to a former spouse who qualifies unless expressly provided otherwise.

Also, there are several previous court cases at the state and federal level that have ruled a valid divorce decree must include the phrase “Foreign Service” and refer to the correct retirement plan.

The Office of Retirement recently updated the AskRNet portion of its website, rnet.state.gov, to include the following question: How can a former Foreign Service spouse waive his/her default retirement benefits?

The Office of Retirement also developed a 69-page divorce handbook for employees to use with their attorneys. They have agreed to update the handbook to include sample language from valid divorce decrees and will highlight the answer to the previous AskRNet question.

AFSA learned during this meeting that any Foreign Service employee can send draft language of a divorce decree to the State Department’s Office of Retirement for approval, regardless of the foreign affairs agency for which they work.

If you are in the divorce process or have recently been divorced, you should send your divorce decree to HRSC@state.gov, whether or not you are retiring soon. It is very important that the Office of Retirement has a valid decree on file prior to when you start the retirement process.

AFSA will continue to work with the Office of Retirement to make sure this information gets out and is known among all the foreign affairs agencies. Last year AFSA hosted a seminar on divorce in the Foreign Service and created the web page afsa.org/divorce providing important resources, including the video from the seminar.

If you have any other questions or concerns please do not hesitate to contact Matt Sumrak, sumrak@afsa.org or Todd Thurwachter, thurwachter@afsa.org.

Federal Benefits Speaker Series: Estate Planning

On Sept. 23, AFSA hosted the tenth installment in our ongoing speaker series on federal benefits issues. We welcomed Jonathan Kinney and Lauren Keenan Rote, of the law firm Bean, Kinney & Korman P.C., to speak about estate planning, wills and trusts.

Kinney is a shareholder of Bean, Kinney & Korman, practicing in the areas of land use and zoning, real estate, estate planning and wealth management. Keenan Rote focuses her practice on land use and zoning law, estate planning and estate administration, as well as general real estate and business matters. As an estate planning attorney, she assists clients with determining their estate planning needs and drafts documents tailored to those specific needs.

They spoke about the importance of estate planning and what it encompasses. Estate planning will help to protect your assets for future generations and can help to distribute your assets at the time of death.

The presentation touched on all the tools for estate planning; powers of attorney, living will, titling of property, wills, trusts, gifting and life insurance.

They noted that the general durable power of attorney can be as important as the will itself. Medical improvements over the years have allowed us to live a lot longer than sometimes our mental capacities allow. The power of attorney names an individual to act on your behalf when you are incapable to do so. This avoids the court making decisions for you.

A living will covers your personal preferences. It will name an individual to make health care decisions for you, but the will outlines the care you authorize.

Titling of property is more of a factor today in estate planning than it was 20 years ago. This is due to issues around joint ownership, transfer on death and pay on death accounts, insurance and retirement accounts that can override the will.

While a power of attorney is in effect while you are living, wills only take effect after your death. The will appoints an executor and outlines the executor’s duties. Kinney suggested it would be wise to pick a trustworthy and reliable executor. If there is no will, state law will apply to the distribution of assets and care of children.

Trusts can be established by your will, in most cases when you have children under the age of 18. Inter vivos is the most common type of trust. It does the same thing as a will, but is better for long-term financial planning, such as for a disabled child.

They also spoke about taxes. At the federal level, transfers between spouses who are U.S. citizens are tax-free. The current federal estate tax “exemption” amount is $5.34 million for individuals and $10.68 million for couples with portability. Portability allows a surviving spouse to use a deceased spouse’s unused exemption for his/her gift or estate tax, but you must file a tax return upon the death of the first spouse to reserve right to “elect” portability.

Approximately 19 states and the District of Columbia have their own estate and/or inheritance tax. To learn more about the different state tax laws on estate and inheritance, Keenan Rote suggested visiting kiplinger.com.

For federal gift taxes there is a lifetime exemption of $5.34 million (tied to the overall “exemption”). The annual gift exemption is $14,000 per individual and $28,000 per couple.

They stressed that everyone should know when to review estate plans: After any major life events (inheritance, move out of state, career change, birth of a child), changes in tax law, or every five years.

The video of the seminar is posted on AFSA’s website at afsa.org/video. The PowerPoint slides used during the presentation can be found at afsa.org/retiree.

August Job Search Program (JSP) Launches Foreign Service Employees into Transition

More than one hundred retiring Foreign Service employees, as well as a dozen Civil Service employees, took part in the August Job Search Program, organized by the Career Transition Center at the Foreign Service Institute. The four week program combines full-group lectures and panel presentations with small-and mid-sized group sessions. It aims to introduce participants to the wide array of opportunities they can pursue in transition, help them assess their interests and capabilities and teach them the job search skills to advance their post-retirement job search. The JSP is offered three times per year: in March, August and October. After this initial month-long program, FS employees are enrolled for a second month to pursue independent job search and transition activities. At the end of this month they officially retire.

During the first week, full group presentations were made on the psychology of transition, restrictions after retirement, advice from former JSP participants, post-separation federal government work and security clearances, networking and developing one’s 30-second summary. It included small and mid-sized group sessions, focused on self-assessment and values assessment, and on individual consultations with JSP counselors.

The second week’s full group sessions included creating one’s portfolio, going from business cards to resumes, capturing one’s skills, articulating accomplishments, developing LinkedIn profiles and other online strategies. Panels addressed writing, publishing and volunteer work; small groups focused on developing and evaluating resumes and cover letters.

The third week delved deeper into the job search process, with tips on dressing for interviews and negotiating strategies. Panels addressed opportunities with nonprofits, at think tanks, professional trade associations, NGOs, in coaching, higher education and teaching ESL. Small groups focused on critiquing resumes and practicing interviews.

In the final week, panels covered mediation and mediator training, advice from corporate and non-profit recruiters, launching a small business and establishing a consulting practice. Participants each had an individualized, recorded practice interview. CTC held a job fair and AFSA hosted a well-attended brown bag lunch. At the end of the program, AFSA sponsored an appreciation reception.

AFSA was strongly affirmed by the expert speaker Susan Musich, Executive Director at PassportCareer.com, who covered e-tools and online strategies for networking in transition. She stressed the first rule of effective networking in today’s online world: join and be active in one’s professional association. For Foreign Service employees, that association is AFSA!

Participants seemed to agree they’d gotten far more out of JSP than they had expected to. Anne Simon, FSO, claimed that the course was invaluable in giving her “broader horizons” on what’s available in transition, to “get up to speed” on her future options. The JSP made her evaluate how to use her FS experience and skills, developed over 30 years, to do what she wants to do. In writing her new resume, she planned to hone in on specific skills and said she would do more networking. She plans to focus on Reemployed Annuitant (WAE) positions and discovering her next career in D.C.

Mitchell Cohn, FSO, felt the JSP helped him take stock of his skills outside of the FS context. The informational interview assignment forced him out of his comfort zone, making him contact people he would not have otherwise contacted. Currently on an assignment in New York City, he will return to New York in a WAE position that was approved before he retired.

Chris Beede, FSO, valued hearing from so many panelists who had been through the same transition he is going through now, and he said he felt empowered by the JSP program to market himself and pursue new areas of interests. He noted that while he liked the income of WAE assignments, the JSP program expanded his horizons to include other available opportunities. He said he was impressed by the wide variety of panel discussions in the program and was especially intrigued by the panel on writing. He noted that the JSP program helped him see the opportunities at local colleges for study, for professional development or personal gratification.

The JSP is open to all full-time Foreign Service and Civil Service employees of the State Department who are covered by FSRDS, FSPS, CSRS or FERS pensions. Employees from other foreign affairs agencies are eligible to enroll as well. Spouses or partners of employees are encouraged and welcome to attend large group (plenary) sessions with their employee sponsor, but will not be formally enrolled.

For more information on when JSP is offered and how to enroll, please see CTC Internet site http://1.usa.gov/1vXlWw1, and for Department of State employees, the CTC SharePoint site http://bit.ly/1wch3B3

The FSI/TC/Career Transition Center staff are available to respond to any questions about the Job Search Program (RV 102), and/or the Retirement Planning Seminars (RV 101 and 105) and are available by email at FSICTC@state.gov and by phone at (703) 302-7407. The complete FAH policy statements on CTC courses (RV 101 – 105) are available here http://1.usa.gov/1ng4sJy

2015 Health Premiums

The Office of Personnel Management has announced that federal employees and retirees will pay an average of 3.8 percent more toward their health insurance premiums in 2015. Federal Employees Health Benefit Program enrollees with self-only coverage will contribute an average of $2.93 more per paycheck, while those with family coverage will pay about $6.89 more.

The exact increase will vary from plan to plan. The most popular plan, the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Standard Option, will see a $3.21, or 3.7 percent, increase for self-only per paycheck. Family enrollees in the plan will pay an extra $8.33, or 4.1 percent, per paycheck.

Premiums in the Federal Employee Dental and Vision Insurance Program will see dental rates increase an average of 1.7 percent and vision premiums increase an average of 1.5 percent compared to 2014.

Consumer Checkbook

The 2014 Open Season for the Federal Employees Health Benefit Program will run from Nov. 10 through Dec. 8.

Once again AFSA is pleased to provide online access to the 2015 Consumers’ Checkbook Guide to Federal Health Plans.

Starting Nov. 10, this member benefit can be accessed at www.afsa.org/retiree. Click on the banner at the top of the page and you will be directed to AFSA’s Consumers’ Checkbook page.

There is no need to log in, as the link is specific to AFSA for our members. The link will remain active throughout the duration of Open Season. Enrollees should review both the benefits and premiums for their health plan choices and decide what coverage best fits their health care needs in the coming year.

Retiree Spotlight: Interview with Chuck Ford

Born in Dayton, Ohio, Charles (Chuck) Ford earned his B.A. in economics at The College of William & Mary and his M.A. in Latin American studies at The George Washington University. He worked at the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association in Washington, D.C. in the early 1970s and joined the Foreign Commercial Service in 1982. Fluent in Spanish, he served in Buenos Aires, Barcelona, Guatemala, London, Caracas and Brussels. He served at headquarters from 1990 to 1994, as director of Latin American trade policy, as deputy assistant secretary for FCS’s International Operations, and for 16 months, as FCS’s acting director general. He served as AFSA vice president for FCS from 2003 to 2005. From 2005 to 2008, he was ambassador to Honduras. He retired in 2009 after a year as advisor to the Commander of U.S. Southern Command, but was called out of retirement in 2010 to serve as FCS’s deputy DG, again serving as acting DG. He retired for a second time in 2013. Ambassador Ford is now Treasurer of AFSA, serves on several boards and is the president of CAF Intl., LLC, an international consultancy. He lives with his family in the D.C. area.

AFSA: What led you to join the Foreign Service?

Ford: Between high school and college I participated in an exchange program, living with a family in Spain. That experience led me to a graduate degree focusing on Latin American economic development and an internship at the Inter-American Foundation. I next entered the trade area in MVMA’s Washington office. Later I applied to join the newly created Foreign Commercial Service (FCS) and was accepted into its second class with an assignment to Buenos Aires.

AFSA: Did you find AFSA useful during your career?

Ford: Very useful. I joined AFSA processing into the FCS. In the early 1990s, the DG called me to headquarters to manage Latin America trade policy. From 1992 to 1993, I served as DAS for FCS International Operations and then, from 1993 to 1994, deputy DG. But with delays in confirmations, I served as acting DG for 16 months, managing 1,500 people and a $140 million budget. My AFSA connection proved invaluable in sharing knowledge on Foreign Service personnel practices.

FCS officers didn’t feel their rights were respected. Based on an overwhelming vote by FCS officers, AFSA was chosen as representative for FCS’s bargaining unit. In 1996, the first FCS rep joined the AFSA board. AFSA really helped “regularize” FCS’s personnel system. Without AFSA, senior positions like the deputy DG and the DAS for Europe or China would not likely have been reserved for Foreign Service employees in the recent FCS consolidation.

AFSA: After serving as acting DG, was everything downhill?

Ford: No. I went on to London from 1994 to 1999 and was delighted to help pioneer “Showcase Europe.” Recognizing the EU as a huge single market, we brought our industry specialists from each country together for top EU trade fairs in their industries. I was also gratified to support the commercial diplomacy behind the Northern Ireland peace process. From 2005 to 2008, I served as U.S. ambassador to Honduras, so it certainly wasn’t downhill in my book!

AFSA: What was your adjustment to retirement like?

Ford: I had been looking forward to an opportunity to start a new career dedicated to teaching and writing.

AFSA: Why did you come out of retirement in 2010 to return to the Foreign Service?

Ford: I cared a lot about FCS– a small agency of truly “can-do” people and I hadn’t really worked directly for FCS for half a dozen years. So when new Director General Suresh Kumar asked me to serve as his deputy, I answered the call. Over the next three years, I focused on two key issues. First, a hiring freeze had reduced our local hires– FSNs– from 1,000 to 700, and the officer corps had decreased from 235 to 225 officers. By the time I left in mid-2013, we had expanded to 250 officers and had begun hiring back 100 of the 300 lost FSNs. We also replenished badly needed funds for Africa and Asia. I’m very proud that in the worst days of federal budget cutting, we came up with solutions that allowed FCS to recover and expand its presence into new markets.

AFSA: Why did you volunteer to serve as AFSA Treasurer? What are your goals?

Ford: I had been an AFSA member for 30 years and had served as FCS’s AFSA VP. I was looking for an opportunity to apply my experience managing resources for a global organization with a strong focus on client service, and strategic direction. With 16,000 members, a $4 million annual budget and $3 million in reserves, I felt I could make the best use of my skills to make a real contribution to AFSA. My hope was to add services for a new generation and help build AFSA into an even stronger professional association.

AFSA: What are your plans for your “second retirement?”

Ford: Soon after my first retirement in 2009, I spoke in Texas as part of AFSA’s speaker program. Through DACOR, I was a guest lecturer at the Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth. Those speaking opportunities really appeal to me. I am in the process of finishing up my oral history with Stu Kennedy at the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training that will be hosted on the Library of Congress website. I would like to focus more on writing and speaking opportunities.

AFSA: What do you feel are the benefits of AFSA membership for retirees and how can they be improved?

Ford: We need to create a stronger network of Foreign Service retirees across the country, to help build a bigger constituency for the Foreign Service and diplomacy. We need more AFSA retirees to build a stronger, more dynamic Foreign Service retiree network, but we need that stronger network to attract more retirees to stay active in AFSA. I’d like to be part of building that stronger retiree network.

— Retiree spotlight is a new feature of the AFSA Newsletter. If you would like to share your story please contact us at retiree@afsa.org.

AFSA Membership in Retirement

AFSA Retiree Vice President Larry Cohen made a persuasive case for “re-upping” in retirement at the Graduation Reception AFSA hosted for Job Search Program participants on Aug. 29. AFSA experienced the strongest “re-upping” by retirees ever at the JSP. In his remarks, Cohen hit on three themes that make AFSA membership so valuable to retirees:

Lifelong Networking: Upon retirement, you lose your “.gov” rolodex. JSP tells you that the first rule of online networking is actually off-line: your professional association, AFSA. AFSA puts you in touch with thousands of FS retirees who have successfully mastered the transition and are available to provide advice and key introductions. Many retirees consider the retiree directory the best single tangible benefit of their AFSA membership, and valuable new online networking tools are in development.

Valuable Benefits: AFSA “has your back” in retirement, advocating for retiree benefits on Capitol Hill and regularly providing information and programs to help you get the most out of your retirement. We sponsor programs for retirees on Federal Benefits–coordinating FEHB with Medicare, FEGLI, TSP, survivor benefits, Long-Term Care Insurance, Estate Planning, WAE, etc.–and put videos online for those not in the D.C. area. Empathetic AFSA counselors help you and your family manage the full gamut of retirement, benefit and survivor issues. AFSA also offers discounts on foreign affairs magazines and services, like Zipcar.

Your Foreign Service Legacy: For most of you, your professional identification is the Foreign Service. In transition, AFSA protects your most valuable asset–your Foreign Service legacy. AFSA keeps you plugged in professionally with the acclaimed Foreign Service Journal, the AFSA Newsletter and the AFSA Daily Media Digest, a popular daily email digest of news items on Foreign Service topics.

Not only did a record number of JSP participants “re up” as retiree members, several new retirees joined for the first time! For the price of a couple of visits to Starbucks per month you put the power of the “Voice of the Foreign Service” behind your retirement and transition.

But it’s not automatic. To join AFSA as a retiree, go to AFSA.org, click on “Member Services” and then, “Join AFSA,” or email member@afsa.org, or call (202) 338-4045, ext. 520. Don’t let retirement separate you from your FS legacy and network!

Please direct any questions that you may have to our in-house expert on retirement issues:

Todd Thurwachter
Retiree Counselor
(202) 994-5509

thurwachter@afsa.org