The callers include an engineer in Buffalo, a diplomat in Saudi Arabia, an FBI agent in New York, an Atlanta air traffic controller, the wife of an IRS official in San Francisco, a Louisville postal supervisor plus many retirement-age federal workers here. They all have the same question: What's going to happen to the lump-sum pension option?

The answer: Nobody knows!

All of the callers said they and the federal workers in their families would retire if it appears that the lump-sum option is going to be wiped out.

Currently, federal retirees who agree to take a reduced monthly pension payment can get a two-stage lump-sum payment. It is an amount equal to all their contributions to the pension plan. The lump sum can range from a few thousand dollars to more than $90,000, depending on salary and length of service. The lump-sum payments here average about $32,000, and most retirees decide to take the payment.

The first installment (half the total) is received several months after the worker retires. The second payment comes one year from the date of retirement. Most of the lump-sum payment (80 to 90 percent) is taxable. And taking it reduces the average retiree's monthly pension anywhere from 8 percent to 12 percent, for life. Still, most people take the lump-sum payment.

The 50-50 payment system expires Sept. 30. Unless Congress changes the rules, people retiring after that date would get their entire lump-sum payment in a single check shortly after retirement.

To further complicate things, there is a good chance Congress may change the lump-sum payout. The Bush administration wants to eliminate it. Budget-cutters argue that action would save the government more than $1 billion each year. Keeping the 50-50 split -- as opposed to going to a single 100 percent payment -- would save an estimated $750 million a year.

Budget-watchers predict that congressional and White House negotiators will make some lump-sum changes. But nobody -- not your senator, your priest, rabbi or personnel office -- knows what will happen. Or when. The benefit could be eliminated. It could be kept at the 50-50 payout formula. It could be spread over three years. Or none of the above. Nobody knows.

Whether you should take the lump-sum payment will be the subject of a radio show Saturday on WNTR (1050 AM). Financial planner Paul Yurachek will talk about the pros and cons of taking the payment.

Meanwhile, if you know you want to take the 50-50 payment and don't want to risk losing it, you should be prepared to retire on short notice. The Office of Personnel Management says that people under the new Federal Employees Retirement System would have to make their retirements effective "no later than Aug. 31, 1990" to lock in the 50-50 payments. For people in the old Civil Service Retirement System, OPM notes: "Sept. 3 is a holiday this year and Aug. 31 is the last workday for most employees. However {Civil Service} employees still have the right to select Sept. 3 as their expiration date for retirement."