It’s a scenario no public safety officer wants to face: retiring earlier than you planned, due to injury or illness. Next to facing injury or death in the line of duty, forced retirement is probably one of the worst things that can happen to a dedicated, career-oriented officer. The goal, after all, is to walk away from the job on your own terms and your own timing, with the congratulations of your fellow officers ringing in your ears. But too often, officers who are forced into retirement must leave the job with little or no fanfare or recognition for the years of service they’ve put in. Sometimes, in fact, there can even be a stigma surrounding those who, through no choice of their own, are forced to retire before they are ready.
Challenges of Forced Retirement
The psychological fallout of forced retirement can be considerable, as shown in a 2016 study by researchers from the University of Nottingham, England. Principal themes that emerged from the research included officers feeling that an unspoken contract had been breached; that forced retirement had negative impacts on their finances; and that even their families were affected by the ramifications of the action. Officers who have developed illnesses or been injured in the line of duty while on the job have found themselves facing mandatory retirement, sometimes even when their physicians believed they would be able to resume their full duties within a few weeks or months.
For both the emotional and financial challenges facing premature retirees (or any public safety retiree), the most important survival tool is planning. Even if you are leaving the force earlier than you planned, it’s important to look at all your resources—emotional, mental, and financial—and take full advantage of them.
Fortunately, public safety officers have access to a number of support systems for counseling and other mental health resources that can help them deal with the emotional burden of an unplanned retirement. For example, the website Copline offers a 24-hour toll-free hotline, answered by retired officers who have been rigorously vetted for listening to and helping their fellow officers. The US Department of Justice (DOJ) maintains a library of resources related to the Law Enforcement Mental Health and Wellness Program (LEMHWA) that are available online.
On the financial side, it’s vital to review your pension benefits, especially in terms of how they’ll be affected by leaving the force earlier than you intended. Because most officers who retire involuntarily do so because of on-the-job illness or injury, you need to carefully explore any disability benefits to which you may be entitled, in addition to your regular pension. If you were injured in the line of duty, you may also qualify for the DOJ’s Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Program, depending on the circumstances of your injury. Your benefits may not make up the full balance of your pre-retirement income, but they’ll be an important base on which you can start to build. If part-time work is part of your plan, go ahead and start looking around at opportunities. If you’ve got a nest egg started in the form of savings or a retirement plan, try to sock away as much as you can until the time of your retirement. The important principle here is to be looking ahead as much as possible and taking positive steps to improve your post-retirement financial condition.
Preparing for the unexpected
Of course, in preparing for retirement, as in sports, the best defense is a good offense. Even if you are not dealing with a potentially career-ending injury or illness, it’s always smart to set aside as much as you can for retirement. After all, your profession requires you to face dangerous situations, sometimes on a daily basis. Knowing that doing your job requires you to put yourself in harm’s way, it just makes sense that, in addition to your pension, you should be systematically contributing to a 457B plan or other retirement savings plan. Getting started now could give you more options if the unexpected were to occur.
At Mathis Public Safety Retirement, we know first-hand the stresses faced by our public safety officers. We also know the dedication to service that drives them. Our commitment to fiduciary guidance ensures that we will help you explore all the possibilities as you develop your plan for retirement. Our goal is to help you make your retirement as stress-free and successful as possible. To learn more, read our recent article, “Fitness for First Responders: It’s Not Just about Exercise.”