Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Police Officers and Firefighters - Come In for a Financial Check-Up Before You Retire

The standard retirement age for a police officer or firefighter working in the State of Minnesota is 55 years of age. This is ten years earlier than the presumed retirement age for civilian workers. Why the difference? Police officers and firefighters have very physically and mentally strenuous jobs, and generally speaking, cannot continue to perform these job duties as they near their sixties.

The Minnesota legislature recognizes the age of 55 as a “tipping point” for police officers and firefighters, and this is the reason for the earlier presumed retirement age. This is also one of the reasons that the legislature carved out other benefits specific to police officers and firefighters injured in the line of duty. It is of utmost importance the police officers and firefighters understand their options before reaching the presumed retirement age of 55. Not knowing your options could result in the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars-worth of benefits. Unfortunately, this is a reality we at Meuser Law Office, P.A. have seen play out several times in our practice. In hopes to educate the police officers and firefighters nearing retirement age, the attorneys at Meuser Law Office, P.A. are happy to sit down with people and review their financial options, even if they are not confident they sustained a work-related injury.

As an attorney, when I meet with you as a client, I will always consider whether you have sustained an injury that could constitute a “Duty Disability” in accordance with Minn. Stat. § 353.656, subd. 1, because these benefits could have a huge impact on your future standard of living. In a nutshell, a Minnesota police officer or firefighter who suffers from a disability that is expected to prevent him or her from performing his or her normal duties for a period of at least one year may be eligible for disability benefits under the PERA Police and Fire Plan. A “disability” could be a specific injury, such as a back injury from lifting a patient on a medical run. Or, a “disability” could be an injury to the back that came on over time and does not have a specific injury or cause.  For example, a police officer working on mounted patrol for ten years who over time develops pain and loss of function in the knee could be approved for a Duty Disability benefit. The same is true for a firefighter who worked on the rig for two decades who developed lower back pain over time. Each of these injuries could constitute a Duty Disability and could entitle the police officer or firefighter to 60 percent of his or her highest five years of salary, non-taxable, through the age of 55 or for the next five years. If the police officer or firefighter has over twenty years of service credit, he or she would be entitled to an additional three percent for each year of service over twenty years (or an additional 0.25 percent for each month of service over twenty years).

Compare this financial scenario to an officer who is experiencing problems with his knee or back but decides to “tough it out” and wait until age 55 to retire. This officer who held out for retirement would receive 60 percent of his high five, or more based upon how many years of service he or she has over twenty years; however, the officer’s benefits would be taxable. This results in an overall monetary loss to the officer because he or she decided to “tough it out” until retirement age. This is especially true once you take into consideration the continuation of health care benefits, which is another huge benefit available to those who have been approved for Duty Disability benefits.

Under Minn. Stat. § 299A.465, Minnesota police officers and firefighters are eligible for health insurance continuation benefits if they are determined to be eligible for PERA Duty Disability benefits. This benefit provides for continued health insurance benefits under the police officer or firefighter’s employer through the age of 65. In other words, the employer is responsible for continuing to pay its share of the health insurance premium for individual or family health care coverage as if the police officer or firefighter were still with the department.

Many police officers and firefighters have never even heard of PERA Duty Disability benefits, and if they have, they don’t know the full extent of the benefits potentially available to them if they are approved. In addition, many more police officers and firefighters assume that they’re not eligible to apply for a disability benefit. The incorrect assumptions about eligibility for disability benefits are endless—for example: “I can’t apply because I am not completely disabled.” The legislature does not require a police officer or firefighter to be completely disabled to apply for disability benefits. Other incorrect assumptions frequently heard are:

  • “I didn’t apply for disability benefits because I didn’t report the injury at the time.” 
  • “Workers’ compensation denied my benefits so I assumed PERA would too.”
  • “I just have low back pain. I didn’t have a specific injury or incident so I cannot apply for a duty disability benefit.” 

None of these scenarios are deal-breakers, the attorneys at Meuser Law Office, P.A. have gotten dozens of police officers and firefighters facing the same obstacles approved for Duty Disability benefits. It is worth your time to call and determine your options regarding your financial future.

If you have a Minnesota Police and Fire Plan PERA Duty Disability claim, contact Meuser Law Office, P.A. for a free, no-obligation legal consultation by calling 1-877-746-5680. Our knowledgeable attorneys will help you understand the often confusing PERA Duty Disability benefit law and ensure you receive the full benefits you are entitled to.

Ashley Biermannby Ashley Biermann
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