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Federal Employee Retirement Taxation [How You Can Prepare]

Planning for retirement is a critical task that every federal employee should undertake. Among the many considerations and decisions that retirement planning entails, preparing for taxes in retirement is of paramount importance.

Understanding the tax implications of your retirement income sources, leveraging tax-advantaged strategies, and effectively planning for required minimum distributions can significantly impact your financial wellbeing during your golden years. 

This not only helps you avoid unpleasant surprises but can also potentially save you thousands of dollars. 

This article aims to shed light on these aspects, providing a comprehensive roadmap for federal employees to navigate their retirement tax planning effectively.

Understanding the Basics of Taxation in Retirement

Just as you pay taxes while you are working, it’s essential to understand that unless it is derived from a tax free account such as a Roth, retirement income is also subject to taxation. 

This includes income from the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS), the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP), and Social Security benefits. However, the degree of taxation can vary widely depending on factors such as your total income, the state you reside in, and several other considerations.

For example, Social Security benefits may be partially or entirely tax-free depending on your income level in retirement. Similarly, withdrawals from TSP may be taxed at different rates depending on whether they are regular withdrawals, early withdrawals, or required minimum distributions.

Being aware of these specifics can empower you to plan strategically for retirement and make informed decisions that minimize your tax liability and maximize your retirement income.

Retirement Income Sources for Federal Employees

Before delving into tax strategies, it’s important to understand the three primary retirement income sources for federal employees:

Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS) 

The FERS is a three-tiered retirement plan that provides benefits from three different sources: a Basic Benefit Plan, Social Security, and the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP). Each of these components plays a crucial role in your overall retirement income.

Social Security

Social Security is a federal program that provides benefits to retired workers, including federal employees. Your Social Security benefits depend on your earnings history and the age at which you decide to start receiving benefits. For most federal employees, Social Security forms a significant part of their retirement income.

Thrift Savings Plan (TSP)

The TSP is a retirement savings and investment plan for federal employees and members of the uniformed services. It’s similar to a 401(k) plan offered by private sector employers. The TSP offers federal employees the ability to save for retirement with tax advantages.

Understanding these income sources, their benefits, and their tax implications is the first step toward effective retirement tax planning.

Tax Implications of Retirement Income Sources

Each retirement income source for federal employees has its own specific tax rules:

FERS Benefits

The portion of your FERS benefit that is based on your contributions is returned to you without being taxed. However, the part that comes from government contributions and interest is taxable. It’s important to note that the taxation of FERS benefits also depends on how you choose to receive your benefits – as a lump sum or as annuity payments.

Social Security

Depending on your income level, up to 85% of your Social Security benefits may be subject to federal income tax. If your combined income – defined as your adjusted gross income, nontaxable interest, and half of your Social Security benefits – is below a certain threshold, your benefits will not be taxed. However, if your combined income exceeds this threshold, a portion of your benefits may be taxable.

Thrift Savings Plan (TSP)

Withdrawals from your TSP are fully taxable in retirement, except for the portion that represents any non-deductible contributions you made. However, the tax implications can vary depending on the type of withdrawal. For instance, early withdrawals (before age 59½) may be subject to a 10% penalty in addition to regular income tax, unless certain exceptions apply.

Tax-Advantaged Strategies for Federal Employees

There are several tax-advantaged strategies that federal employees can consider to maximize their retirement income and minimize their tax liability:

TSP Contributions

One of the most effective ways to reduce your current tax liability is to maximize your contributions to your TSP. The TSP is funded with pre-tax dollars, which means that every dollar you contribute reduces your current taxable income. Additionally, your contributions grow tax-deferred, meaning you don’t pay taxes on the investment growth until you start making withdrawals in retirement.

IRA Rollovers and Roth Conversions

If you’re looking for more flexibility in your retirement savings strategy, consider rolling over your TSP into a Traditional IRA. This can provide you with a wider range of investment options and more flexibility in withdrawal rules. Alternatively, you might consider converting your TSP or Traditional IRA to a Roth IRA. While you’ll have to pay taxes on the amount converted, all future withdrawals from the Roth IRA, including earnings, are tax-free, provided certain conditions are met.

Health Savings Accounts (HSAs)

If you’re enrolled in a high deductible health plan, consider contributing to a Health Savings Account (HSA). HSAs offer a triple tax advantage: contributions are tax-deductible, earnings grow tax-free, and withdrawals for qualified medical expenses are also tax-free. This can be a powerful tool for saving for healthcare costs in retirement.

Planning for Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs)

Once you reach age 72, you’re required to start taking minimum distributions from your TSP and any IRAs you own. These Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) are based on your account balance and your life expectancy, and they’re subject to income tax. Failing to take your RMD can result in a significant tax penalty – 50% of the amount that should have been withdrawn.

RMDs can push you into a higher tax bracket, increasing your tax liability. Therefore, it’s important to incorporate RMD planning into your overall retirement tax strategy. For instance, you might consider strategies like making Qualified Charitable Distributions (QCDs) from your IRA or strategically planning your withdrawals to spread out your tax liability.

State Taxes in Retirement for Federal Employees

In addition to federal taxes, state taxes can also take a significant bite out of your retirement income. However, the tax landscape varies widely from state to state. Some states are more tax-friendly for retirees, either because they have no state income tax or because they exempt certain types of retirement income from taxation. For instance, some states do not tax Social Security benefits, while others exempt a portion of retirement income from pensions and retirement accounts.

Therefore, it can be beneficial to research and understand the tax laws of the state you plan to reside in during retirement. This can play a pivotal role in your retirement planning and can potentially save you a significant amount of money.

Working with a Tax Professional

Given the complexity of tax laws and the potential for changes over time, it can be beneficial to work with a tax advisor or retirement planner. A tax professional can provide personalized advice tailored to your situation, help you understand the nuances of retirement taxation, and optimize your tax strategies.

Working with a professional can be particularly helpful if your tax situation is complex – for example, if you have multiple income sources in retirement, plan to move to a different state, or want to leave a legacy to your heirs. A professional can guide you through these complexities, help you avoid potential pitfalls, and ensure that your retirement tax plan aligns with your overall retirement goals.


Preparing for taxes in retirement is a critical aspect of retirement planning for federal employees. By understanding your retirement income sources, their tax implications, and the tax-advantaged strategies available, you can effectively plan for a financially secure retirement. 

It’s never too early or too late to start planning – every step you take today can have a significant impact on your retirement lifestyle. If you need help, consider reaching out to us for professional guidance. Your future retired self will thank you.

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