Can You Get Military Retirement Before 20 Years? 

Can veterans receive partial military retirement pay or other benefits with less than 20 years of service? The answer may surprise you.
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Partial Military retirement pay

The military retirement benefits are one of the best retirement plans around – including pay from a monthly pension, a 401k-style Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) and extremely low-cost medical benefits for life. These benefits are well deserved, and the least we can do to thank our veterans for their years of dedication and service. 

It’s easy to value a military pension at over one million dollars, so in addition to the honor of serving our country, these generous military retirement benefits entice many servicemembers to forgo possible higher pay in the civilian world and remain in military service long enough to earn a military retirement.

But what happens if you don’t stick around long enough to earn the standard retirement? Can you earn a partial military retirement?

Do you get a pension after 4 years in the military? 

If you leave the military after four years, you cannot qualify for a typical military pension. However, it is possible to qualify for military medical retirement. Additionally, if you are part of the Blended Retirement System (BRS), you can take the money you have contributed to the Thrift Savings Plan as well as the money the government has matched when you leave. 

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Do you get a pension after 10 years in the military? 

You can only qualify for full military retirement benefits after 20 years of active duty or after earning an eligible amount of retirement points in the Guard or Reserves. However, as stated above, you can qualify for military medical retirement before 20 years. You can also take all of your TSP contributions with you if you are apart of the Blended Retirement System. 

Reader Question: Can I get partial military retirement pay?

I received a reader question this week:

Hi Ryan,

Let’s say an Individual put in 15 years of active duty, then separated from the Army at his own request with a less-than-honorable discharge.  What would his entitlements be for the time he served on Active Duty? Is he entitled to Partial Retirement Pay? Or does he have to put in the 20 years to receive retirement pay?

Thanks,

A.T.
Veteran, US Army

Hello A.T. – Thanks for your service to our country. I understand where you are coming from. Serving 15 years is mighty close to the magic number 20, and it seems like a waste to have that many years of service but no retirement pension or other retirement benefits to show for it. 

Unfortunately, in most cases, one needs to serve 20 years to qualify for full military retirement pay and benefits, except in some cases, such as disability or an allowable early retirement due to the needs of the military. Here are some other situations in which someone may be eligible for retirement pay or other military benefits. 


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Alternatives to 20 Years in the Military

There are several alternatives to qualifying for full military retirement pay, including reserve service, disability compensation and early retirement options under specific circumstances.

1. Join the Guard or Reserves and Continue Until Retirement

Your 15 years will count toward retirement through the Guard or Reserves. You would then need to complete five more years of good service before you would be eligible for retirement pay. 

Keep in mind that you will not be eligible to receive retirement pay until age 60 unless you are eligible to retire from the Reserves early.

There are other benefits for joining the Guard or Reserves, including pay, access to inexpensive health insurance for you and your family, training, education, and much more. While the retirement benefits from serving in the Guard or Reserves aren’t quite the same as an active duty retirement, they are still incredibly valuable, especially once the health care benefits and retirement pay kick in at age 60.

2. Retire Under the Temporary Early Retirement Authority (TERA)

    TERA is an early retirement plan that Congress authorizes each branch to use when they need to reduce the size of their force. TERA is usually only used when the military is downsizing. 

    Eligible servicemembers can retire with full benefits and a reduced pension if they served at least 15 years but less than 20. However, this plan is not open to all servicemembers, all branches, or all career fields. The services use this to selectively reduce the size of their end force. 

    You must apply for and be approved to retire under TERA. Here is a guide that explains TERA in more detail.

    3. Receive Separation Pay

    Some servicemembers who are involuntarily separated are eligible to receive involuntary separation pay. This is typically available to those with at least six years of service but less than 20. There are often other conditions that need to be met as well.

    Separation pay is calculated at a rate of “10% of your annual base pay, multiplied by the number of years you served.” You would include months served at 1/12th of a year when running the calculation. 

    If in doubt, contact your personnel department or finance department for more information. If the separation has already occurred, then it may be too late for a benefit such as this.

    4. Upgrade Your Discharge

    This isn’t always easy to do, especially if you voluntarily leave the service due to some negative action on your part. However, there are scenarios in which you can get your discharge upgraded

    Doing this may help you be eligible for certain civilian jobs, particularly within state and federal government. Additionally, a better discharge may make you eligible to join the Guard or Reserves if you decide that is an option for you. 

    5. File a Disability Claim

    Assuming you have a qualifying disability, you can apply for VA disability compensation. If it gets approved, you may receive a monthly disability compensation check and health care benefits. 

    Keep in mind that you have to file your claim shortly after leaving military service, and you will need your medical records.

    I highly recommend visiting your local VA representative or a Veterans Service Organization for assistance with completing the paperwork for your disability claim.

    Here are the current VA service-connected disability rates. The rates receive an annual increase for cost-of-living-adjustment (COLA).

    Best option for you?

    Only you know the full details of your situation. If you are already separated, it may be difficult or impossible to get back in the service, depending on your reenlistment code, current health, and other factors.

    However, if you are able to return to service, joining the Guard or Reserves may be an option, depending on your reenlistment code and the needs of the units. You also might be able to cross-train into another job, so don’t let that prevent you from seeking that option.

    Good luck with your decision, and thank you for your service.


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    1. Gerald easson says

      I have recently heard from some other veterans, that if you have fifteen plus years of Honorable service but less than twenty and have a few years of Honorable Federal service time, but less than twenty years, that you may be eligible for a partial retirement.

    2. Chester says

      Can you receive military retirement if you served 13 years in the Air National Guard with Honorable Discharged? I suffer from extreme PTSD, which was caused by my time in the military.

      • Ryan Guina says

        Hello Chester,

        The standard requirement for military retirement eligibility is 20 years of service. However, it may be possible to receive a medical discharge and medical retirement (this would need to occur while you are still in the service). It may also be possible to file a VA disability claim, which can provide additional pay and benefits.

        I recommend working with a veterans service organization to help you file your claim. Here are some organizations.

        I wish you the best, and thank you for your service.

    3. Brittany says

      If you decide to leave the Guard/Reserve after 10 years do you get health insurance for life through Tricare?

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