“Prior notice is required; can I retire now anyway?”

Question: Alan, I have worked for our National Health Service for the past 39 years. I want to retire with immediate effect. The reason is my husband is not well. Will I have to work my notice? Many thanks.                                                            

Belfast, Northern Ireland

Answer: Dear Jayne, In light of your husband’s ill health, let’s see if we can find a way to assist you and him:        

1. Retirement programs – whether private or governmental – are almost always governed by a set of rules and regulations, often referred to as a “Retirement Plan,” “Retirement Policy” or similar title. That is where the analysis must begin. From the fact that you work for your National Health Service, my many years of working with these matters makes me presume that its retirement program has a formal set of rules, regulations and procedures that participants in its retirement program must abide by in order to collect its benefits. We commonly call those a “Retirement Plan” or a “Retirement Policy.” In that document or list of rules you will find the first step in our analysis: do you have a mandatory “notice period,” and if so, what exceptions to that mandatory “notice period” may be available to you? 

2. To find out how you may be able to obtain a copy of your agency’s Retirement Plan, contact the agency’s Human Resources Administrator or Benefits Department. Most employees have never seen their company’s or agency’s Retirement Plan. It is important that you or someone you trust review that Retirement Plan, or at least a summary of it, which is commonly called a Summary Plan Description, or “SPD” for short. May I suggest that you request a copy of that Plan or Policy from your Human Resources or Benefits Department, or ask if it is available for review on the internet. These documents can be quite lengthy, obtuse and confusing, and may require the trained eye of an attorney. But, before hiring an attorney, try to review it by yourself. 

3. It is not uncommon that employers change or replace Retirement Plans every few years, so do not be surprised if you find out that you are a participant in more than one Retirement Plan. Every now and then, an employee Retirement Plan will be amended, to change its “rules,” including, possibly, its rules about “retirement notice.” Also, every now and then, an employee Retirement Plan is terminated, and a new employee Retirement Plan is put into effect in its place. For this reason, it is possible that you are a participant in more than one Retirement Plan, perhaps as an example, one that covers the first 25 years of your employment, and one that covers the later 14 years of your employment. For this reason, you may have to review the rules and regulations of more than one Retirement Plan.  

4. If your Retirement Plan (or Plans) requires a prior notice of your intentions to retire (say, for example, 180 days), you may be able to use what we sometimes call “Notice Alternatives.” Many times, when a Retirement Plan has a notice requirement, we find that the Plan’s rules and regulations either expressly permit (or at least do not expressly prohibit) the employee from using accrued vacation to satisfy the “prior notice” requirement. So, for example, if over the years you have earned, but have not used, 200 days of vacation time, you may be able to (a) stay at home with your husband, (b) collect your accrued vacation pay during the “notice period,” and (c) gain the overall advantages of retiring immediately, even though you are not technically retiring at this time. The same goes for accrued but unused sick time, or what some employers call Paid Time Off (commonly called “PTO”), which sometimes can be used as a form of “Notice Alternative.”

Another “Notice Alternative” that you might be able to use to gain the same advantage is a paid leave of absence. Some employers, both private and governmental, permit their employees a paid leave of absence to care for ill family members. If your employer does – either according to formal Retirement Plan rules, or by means of informal “Go ahead” from your manager – this may be a mechanism that would provide you with the same advantages as an immediate retirement.  

5. Some countries (or states or provinces) have related laws that are available to help out people in your situation, too. For example, in the U.S. we have a law called the Family Medical Leave Act (or “FMLA,” for short) that permits people with illnesses or sick family members, to take up to 12 weeks off on unpaid leave of absence. If you have such a law where you are, it could be used to take a leave of absence, and during that leave of absence satisfy the “notice” you must give. While the U.S. law does not provide for pay during the leave of absence, you might have such pay available to you, either by means of the law, or the policy of your agency. That is, some U.S. employers voluntarily pay the employee during a FMLA leave of absence, and your National Health Service might do so, as well. 

6. In addition, if your Retirement Plan (or Plans) requires a prior notice of your intentions to resign (say, for example, 180 days), you may be able to use what we sometimes call a “Notice Exception.” Let’s say that, upon inspection, your Retirement Plan requires a prior notice of 180 days, and that you want to begin retirement immediately. Every Retirement Plan has a person or a group of people who administer the Plan, and make decisions on issues that arise under the Plan. In governmental agencies like yours, it is most commonly called a “Retirement Board.” Almost always, you will find that they have a degree of discretion in how they administer the Plan, and interpret its rules, and are willing to do so when fairness, compassion and justice suggest it would be wise to do so. 

A Plan participant, like yourself, may be entitled under one of the Plan’s rules to an exception to those rules commonly called a “Hardship Exemption.” This is a mechanism that permits the Retirement Plan to be applied to provide relief from a pressing hardship to a Participant (or a Participant’s family). “Hardship Exemptions” are most commonly provided to those who are, themselves, quite ill, and often to people, like yourself, who have sick family members. Another not uncommon Hardship Exemption would be that exception to a rule available to those who are facing homelessness, or calamity due to fire, storm, flood, etc. Look for language in your Retirement Plan that provides a Notice Exception – and, especially a Hardship Exemption – like these.     

7. Even if your Retirement Plan does not have language in it that permits a Notice Alternative, or a Notice Exception, you should consider asking for one anyway. No doubt you have heard the sayings “There is no rule without an exception,” and “There is no rule that has not been broken.” Well, there is no harm in asking for an exception to the “prior notice” rules.

I strongly believe that, so long as a request is (a) respectfully made, (b) reasonable in nature, and (c) has a good reason or rationale behind it – here, that you need to take care of your ill husband – there is no downside risk in asking for “relief.” Just find out who the Retirement Plan Administrators or Board Members are, and “tell them your story” in writing. I often suggest that, when doing so, people in your circumstances make reference to the Golden Rule that forms a part of many of the world’s religions: “If you were in my circumstances, I am certain you, too, would make this request; I know that, if I was on your Board, I would surely approve it.” I think this might just be that much more effective in your work context: the National Health Service, where people may just have an extra dose of compassion in their hearts. 

8. If you do end up having to give prior notice, make sure you give it in the right form, and transmit it in the right fashion. If it turns out that (a) your Retirement Plan does not include any Notice Alternatives, (b) your Retirement Plan does not include any Notice Exceptions, and (c) your request for consent to give immediate notice and immediate effect to your retirement is denied, I do urge you to be quite careful about (a) the “form of your notice,” that is, it either uses the right application form and/or contains the right information and documentation, and (b) your notice is “transmitted correctly,” that is, it is addressed to the right people, sent the right way and sent within all required deadlines. The “rules” on “form” and “transmission” should be set forth in your Retirement Plan(s). If you send in the notice incorrectly, it may just delay the eventual initiation of your retirement benefits.      

Jayne, you are surely to be commended for taking the time to devote to your sick husband, and you are to be congratulated on your long-term service to your National Health Service. My prayers are with you and your husband.   

My Best to You,
Al Sklover

P.S.: Al Sklover is available for confidential telephone consultations of 30-minutes, 60-minutes, or two-hours. For more info [click here.]  

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© 2013 Alan L. Sklover, All Rights Reserved.

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