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Lump-sum payment or monthly pension?

Key takeaways

Taking a lump sum or monthly payments depends on:

  • Your retirement income and essential expenses
  • Your life expectancy
  • Wealth transfer plans

Faced with mounting pension costs and greater volatility, companies are increasingly offering their current and former employees a critical choice: Take a lump-sum payment now or hold onto their pension plan.

"Companies are offering these buyouts as a way to shrink the size of future pension obligations, which ultimately reduces the impact of that pension plan on the company's financials," says Aaron Korthas, retirement practice leader at Fidelity Investments. "From an employee's perspective, the decision comes down to a trade-off between an income stream and a pile of money that's made available to him or her today."

Pension buyouts may be offered to current or former employees of a firm. You may have a vested benefit from a former employer, or your current company may be offering you a pension lump-sum buyout long before you retire.

Here's how a pension lump-sum payment offer typically works: Your employer issues a notice that by a certain date, eligible employees must decide whether to exchange a monthly benefit payment in the future for a one-time lump-sum payment. If you opt for the lump sum, you or an eligible tax-qualified plan (such as an IRA) will most likely receive a check or IRA rollover from the company's pension fund for that amount. The company's pension (or defined benefit) obligation to you will end. Alternatively, if you opt to keep your monthly benefits, nothing will change, except the option to take a lump sum may be removed after the offer period expires.

Here are some considerations for each option:

Pension plans typically provide the payment of a set amount every month from your retirement date for the rest of your life ("an annuity"). You may also choose to receive lifetime payments that continue to your spouse after your death.1

These monthly payments have drawbacks, however:

  • If you're no longer working for the company making the offer, your benefit amount typically will not increase between now and your retirement date. Once you begin receiving life annuity payments, your payment amount typically will not come with inflation protection. As a result, your monthly benefits are likely to lose purchasing power over time. 
  • Taking your pension benefit as a life annuity means your ability to collect your payments depends on your company's ability to make them. If your company retains the pension and can't make the payments, a federal agency called the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) will pay a portion of them up to a legally defined limit. The maximum benefit guaranteed by the PBGC in 2024 is $7,107.95 per month (straight-life annuity) for most people retiring at age 65. The monthly guarantee is lower for retirees before age 65 and larger for those retiring after age 65. In general, the lower the amount of your pension, the higher the percentage that will be protected. If responsibility for your payments shifts to an insurance company, it will be the insurance company and not the pension plan that is responsible for your guarantees.2

Some employers are also considering buying annuities for those who do not opt for the lump-sum offer. In this case, your benefits will not change, except that the insurance company's name will be on the checks you receive in retirement, and the guaranteed income will be provided by the insurance company, which may have a different risk profile.3 (As with offering lump sums, companies that transfer the annuities to an insurance company can remove the pension liability from their books.)

A lump-sum payment may seem attractive. You give up the right to receive future monthly benefit payments in exchange for a cash-out payment now—typically, the actuarial net present value of your age 65 benefit, discounted to today. Taking the money up front gives you flexibility. You can invest it yourself, and if you have assets remaining at the time of your death, you can leave them to your heirs.

However, the following cautionary factors:

  • You're responsible for making the funds last throughout your retirement.
  • Your investments may be subject to market fluctuation, which could increase or reduce the value of your assets and the income you can generate from them.
  • The amount of a lump sum payment has an inverse relationship to interest rates—in general, as interest rates rise, lump sum values will decline.
  • If you don't roll the proceeds directly into an IRA or an employer-qualified plan like a 401(k) or a 403(b), the distribution will be taxed as ordinary income and may push you into a higher tax bracket. If you take the distribution before age 59½, you may also owe a 10% early withdrawal tax penalty.
  • You can use some or all of the lump sum to purchase an annuity—typically, an immediate annuity—which could provide a monthly income stream, as well as inflation protection or other optional features built into the cost. As an individual buyer, you may not be able to negotiate as good a deal with the insurance provider, so the annuity may or may not replicate the monthly pension payment you would have received from your employer. You also need to select your annuity provider carefully. Pay special attention to a company's credit ratings, and make sure you understand the terms and conditions of the annuity.

Whether it's best to take a lump sum or keep your pension depends on your personal circumstances. You'll need to assess a number of factors, including those mentioned above and the following:

  • Your retirement income and essential expenses. Predictable income, like Social Security, a pension, and fixed annuities, means something predictable every month or year that doesn't vary with market and investment returns. If your predictable retirement income (including your income from the pension plan) and your essential expenses (such as food, housing, and health insurance) are roughly equivalent, the best choice may be to keep the monthly payments, because they play a critical role in meeting your essential retirement income needs. If your predictable income exceeds your essential expenses, you might consider taking the lump sum. You can use a portion to cover your monthly expenses, and invest the rest for growth. These comparisons may be relatively easy if you're already retired, but developing an accurate picture of your retirement income and expenses can be difficult if you're still working. Beware of the temptation to use the lump sum to pay down credit card debt or handle other current expenses—and not just because of the large tax bill you're likely to face. "Lump-sum distributions come from a pool of money that is intended specifically for retirement," explains Korthas. "To access those funds for another reason puts the quality of your retirement at risk."
  • Longevity. Your monthly benefit payment and the lump-sum amount were calculated using actuarial calculations that take into account your current age, mortality tables, and interest rates set forth by the IRS. These estimates don't take into account your personal health history or the longevity of your parents, grandparents, or siblings. If you expect to have an above-average life span, you may want the predictability of regular payments. Having a payment stream that will last throughout your lifetime can be comforting. However, if you expect to have a shorter-than-average life span because of personal reasons, the lump sum could be more beneficial.
  • Wealth transfer plans. After you've considered retirement income and expenses, and have planned an adequate cushion for inflation, longevity, and investment risk, it's appropriate to take wealth transfer plans into consideration. With pension plans, you often don't have the ability to transfer the benefit to children or grandchildren. Please consult an estate planning attorney.

A pension buyout should be evaluated within the context of your overall retirement picture. If you are presented with this option, consult an expert who can give you unbiased advice about your choices. Finally, be aware that more corporations continue to consider discharging their pension obligations, so it's a good idea to stay in touch with old employers. "If you've left a pension behind at a former employer, sometime in the coming years, you're very likely to be offered a lump sum," says Korthas. "Keep your former employer's administrator up to date on your current address, because you can miss this opportunity if your employer can't find you."

  • Make sure you know whether you have any pension benefit at your current or former employers, and keep your contact information with those companies up to date. You cannot even consider an offer if you don't know it exists.
  • Get a comprehensive view of your retirement plan with our Planning & Guidance Center, and explore changes that may help you become better prepared.
  • If you decide to take a lump sum in lieu of monthly pension payments, consider rolling it over to an IRA. A direct rollover from your employer's plan to your IRA provider (trustee to trustee) will not be subject to immediate taxation and may be the best way to preserve the tax-deferred status of this money. You should consult your tax adviser.

If you do receive a lump-sum payment offer, review it with a trusted financial adviser. Everyone's circumstances are different. What is right for your friend, neighbor, coworker, or relative may not be right for you.

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1. Other annuity options may also be available. 2. Guarantees are subject to the claims-paying ability of the issuing insurance company. 3. State guaranty associations may provide some protection in the event of insurance company failure, but insurance companies and their agents are prohibited by law from using the existence of the guaranty association notice to induce individuals to purchase any kind of insurance policy. The tax and estate planning information contained herein is general in nature, is provided for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as legal or tax advice. Fidelity does not provide legal or tax advice. Fidelity cannot guarantee that such information is accurate, complete, or timely. Laws of a particular state or laws that may be applicable to a particular situation may have an impact on the applicability, accuracy, or completeness of such information. Federal and state laws and regulations are complex and are subject to change. Changes in such laws and regulations may have a material impact on pre- and/or after-tax investment results. Fidelity makes no warranties with regard to such information or results obtained from its use. Fidelity disclaims any liability arising out of your use of, or any tax position taken in reliance on, such information. Always consult an attorney or tax professional regarding your specific legal or tax situation.

Investing involves risk, including risk of loss.

Views expressed are as of the date indicated, based on the information available at that time, and may change based on market or other conditions. Unless otherwise noted, the opinions provided are those of the speaker or author and not necessarily those of Fidelity Investments or its affiliates. Fidelity does not assume any duty to update any of the information.

Be sure to consider all your available options and the applicable fees and features of each before moving your retirement assets.

Fidelity Brokerage Services LLC, Member NYSE, SIPC, 900 Salem Street, Smithfield, RI 02917 632508.9.0