This page was last updated on 1 November 2020.
What is a defined benefit pension?
Defined benefit pensions provide the retiree with a fixed income. Those enrolled in defined contribution pensions are responsible for making their own contributions. So the amount of pension income you’ll get under such schemes varies.
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A defined benefit pension provides a level of retirement income determined by its benefit formula. If yours is a career average pension, it averages your salary over the years. A final salary pension is based on the salary you earn upon retirement.
Your salary is then multiplied by the accrual rate, which determines what proportion of your salary you will be paid during retirement. The duration of your employment with the pension provider is also taken into account.
This article will provide an introduction and guide to what is defined benefit pension, the upsides of defined contribution vs defined benefit schemes, along with other useful information and advice.
Here is a short video explaining how a defined benefit pension works.
What is the difference between defined benefit and defined contribution pensions?
As mentioned above, the main difference is whether your pension income will vary. Some types of defined benefit pension scheme will allow you to ‘top up’ your pension, but most do not.
There are other differences between the terms and conditions of the two types of pension.
Your defined contribution pension pot is invested in financial assets. While this is also the case with the employer pension funds that will end up paying your pension, there is a crucial difference.
Since the amount you will receive from a defined benefit pension is guaranteed (assuming the scheme is still around when you retire), investment market fluctuations will not directly affect your pension income.
A market crash can cause a big hit to the retirement income of those who depend on defined contribution pensions.
The retirement age also differs based on pension scheme rules. Individuals aged 55 and older can access defined contribution pensions.
One must usually be older to access a defined benefit pension, though this rule varies between employers. If you are able to take your pension at 55, then it will be subject to a reduction, known as an early retirement factor or reduction. This is to account for the fact that your pension will be paid for a longer period of time.
Those intending to retire and withdraw from their pensions early should take this into account. We would always recommend that you speak to a pension and financial advisor before making a decision.
Under a defined contribution scheme, you can choose to contribute more or less, but you can also choose to withdraw more or less.
A define benefit pension does not provide this freedom, although you may cash in or withdraw a lump sum- this will be outlined in greater detail below.
How does a defined benefit pension work?
So, the amount you are entitled to is determined by your salary, the duration of your career, and the accrual rate.
Your employer and scheme Trustees will have a pension fund from which these payments are made. This fund is invested in the market to provide a return, and investment risk is borne by the company, with the scheme or plan trustees deciding how the money is invested. The costs of investments that fail do not affect the membership of the pension plans.
Otherwise, the company will ultimately be responsible for making good any deficit in the scheme.
What is a final salary pension?
There are two main categories of defined benefit pension: career average and final salary schemes.
Individual businesses choose which best meets their and their employees’ needs.
If you are part of a career average scheme, your pension benefits are based on an average of your salary throughout the course of your career. With final salary pensions, employee benefits are based on your final salary at the point of retirement.
A final salary scheme will multiply your final salary by the number of years you worked for the company, and by a fraction called the accrual rate. This retirement income calculation varies based on the nature of the final salary pension scheme your employer has in place.
A final salary pension scheme will benefit scheme members whose salaries increase as their career progresses. If you are a member of this scheme and your salary is continuing to rise, you are in luck.
Which employers tend to provide defined benefit pensions?
These pensions are not as widespread as they once were, as defined contribution pensions, or money purchase pensions as they are also known, are increasingly taking their place. But db pensions are still widespread. According to the Office for National Statistics, over twelve million in the UK are currently eligible for such pensions.
Private sector employers offering defined benefit pensions are typically large mature and stable companies, while defined benefit pensions are also provided by some public sector employers.
A few examples of employee groups covered by defined benefit schemes include public sector teachers as well as NHS workers.
How do I know what kind of pension my employer offers?
Your employer is legally required to inform you of the pensions arrangements they provide. If you aren’t sure exactly what kind of scheme they have in effect, get in contact and find out what benefit pension schemes they provide.
What are the upsides of a defined benefit scheme?
- A certain standard of living is guaranteed throughout your retirement. This provides certainty and peace of mind.
- You needn’t make any investment or withdrawal decisions- this can be a major advantage for those who want to avoid the hassle.
- These pensions can be transferred or partially cashed in tax-free. This is explained in greater detail below.
- As with other workplace pension schemes, state pension eligibility is not affected. This is determined by your age and national insurance history.
What are the potential downsides?
- You will be unable to control the amount you receive from your defined benefit pension. You can cash it in, but you cannot vary your income more gradually.
- While some pension schemes allow you to make investment decisions on your own behalf, this is not possible with a defined benefit scheme. If you have investing expertise, this is a downside. Those willing to tie their retirement income to market performance should consider other options.
- It is not possible to bequeath a defined benefit pension scheme to one’s family or other dependents. Upon one’s death, benefits will end, so one’s beneficiaries and dependants receive none of one’s pension. Some schemes do allow one’s spouse or partner to continue receiving reduced benefits.
Can I transfer my pension if I change my employer?
You can usually transfer a defined benefit pension scheme from one employer to another.
Most public sector employers provide the option to transfer to a defined contribution pension. So do many in the private sector.
But some firms do not provide this option. If the pension scheme is ‘unfunded’, pension contributions come out of the employer’s operating income, rather than from a pension fund. In these cases, you may not be able transfer to another employer.
Consult your employer to find out whether they provide transfer options. If you have a pension over £30,000, consulting a professional advice service is mandatory.
Can I withdraw a lump sum from my db pension?
Some retirees wish to withdraw a cash lump sum from their retirement plans. Some plan to use some of their db scheme to buy a retirement property in France or sunny Spain for example. Others fancy a new car.
Some people seek greater returns by investing the money themselves. You could even pay off liabilities such as outstanding mortgage debt.
There is a big difference between cashing in some of your pension plan and transferring it to a defined contribution scheme. These are subject to different rules, so you must be certain which of these you wish to do.
If you wish to use the money to seek investment returns on your own account, this may be possible through a defined contribution scheme, so make sure you know what options are available to you.
Also consider ISA and SIPP accounts that limit the tax cost attached to your investments. Buying an annuity is a safe way to earn a return. Annuities are more reliable than other assets such as shares. They pay a guaranteed rate of interest for the rest of your lifetime, or until you reach your life expectancy.
If you do opt to withdraw a lump sum, it is possible- upon retirement- to cash in a quarter of your pension tax-free. Naturally, this will reduce your future retirement benefit amount.
Whichever decision you make, it is best to seek guidance from independent financial advisers and other industry experts. Make sure to consult a pension specialist with any concerns. A financial adviser can be a source of confidence and support in making your decision.
Withdrawing a lump sum comes with serious risks, so take care and do your research.
What happens to my pension if my employer goes bankrupt?
If your employer looks like it’s going into bankruptcy or liquidation, don’t panic. Recently, some large companies have failed, leading to news stories about empty pension pots and employees left high and dry.
You are covered for at least the majority of your pension by the Pension Protection Fund. The Pension Protection Fund, or PPF, was established by the government in 2005 to protect pensioners from this difficulty.
Thanks to the PPF, those retiring after 1/4/2020 will have their pension covered by the scheme in the event of employer bankruptcy. If your pension exceeds the threshold of £41,461, amounts over this threshold will not be covered.
So your employer going bust may cause a blow to your finances. But you can rely on PPF compensation to cover at least part of your pension payment.
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