Faced with mounting pension costs and greater volatility, companies are increasingly offering their current and former employees a critical choice: Take a lump sum now or hold on to their pension.
“Companies are offering these buyouts as a way to shrink the size of their pension plans, which ultimately reduces the impact of that pension plan on the company’s financials,” says John Beck, senior vice president for benefits consulting 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 them today.”
Pension buyouts can be offered to any current or former employee of a firm. You may be already receiving benefits as a retiree, or 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.
Whatever your case is, here’s how a pension lump sum 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. If you opt for the lump sum, you’ll receive a check from the company’s pension fund for that amount, and the company’s 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 will go away.
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.1 (Similar to offering lump sums, companies that switch to an annuity provided by an insurance company can remove the pension liability from their books.)
The process is relatively simple, but the decision about which option to take can be complex. Here are the pros and cons of each option:
Keeping the monthly payment
Pension plans are required to provide a life annuity option, which typically pays the same amount every month from your retirement date through the rest of your life (or at least for a set period). In some cases, your spouse or other beneficiary may also receive benefits for his or her lifetime after you die. If you’re already retired, you’re probably used to receiving the payments, and understand the role they play in your retirement income stream.
These monthly payments do have drawbacks, however:
- If you’re not working for the company making the offer, your benefit amount typically will not increase between now and your retirement date. During retirement, your life annuity payments typically do not come with inflation protection, so your monthly benefits are likely to lose purchasing power over time. An annual inflation rate of 3%, the average since 1926, will cut the value of your benefit in half in 24 years.
- Taking your pension benefit as a life annuity means you may not have access to enough money to fund a large, unexpected expense.
- Your ability to collect your payments depends in part 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 2014 is $4,943 per month for most people retiring at age 65. The monthly guarantee is lower for retirees before age 65 and larger for post-65 retirees. 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
Taking the lump sum
A lump sum may seem attractive: You give up the right to receive future monthly benefit payments in exchange for a large cash 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 your death, you can leave them to your heirs.
However, keep the following cautionary factors in mind:
- You are responsible for making the funds last throughout your retirement.
- Your investments may be subject to market fluctuation that could increase or reduce the value of your assets and the income you can generate from them.
- If you don’t roll the proceeds directly into an IRA or employer qualified plan like a 401(k) or 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, which could provide a monthly income stream as well as inflation protection or other features. But as an individual buyer, you may not be able to negotiate as good a deal with the insurance provider as the benefit you would have received by taking the pension plan annuity, 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, paying special attention to companies’ credit ratings, and make sure you read and understand the terms and conditions of the annuity.
Making your choice
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. If your guaranteed 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 day-to-day retirement income needs. If your income exceeds your expenses, you might consider taking the lump sum: You can use a portion of it to cover your monthly expenses, and invest the rest for growth. Guaranteed income, like Social Security, pension and fixed annuities, simply means something you can count on every month or year and that doesn’t vary with market and investment returns.
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 developed specifically for retirement,” says Beck. “To access those funds for another reason puts the quality of your retirement at risk.”
- Longevity. Both your monthly benefits 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. But 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 lasts throughout your lifetime can be comforting. However, if you expect to have a shorter-than-average life span because of personal reasons or your family medical history, 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. If wealth transfer is an important factor, a lump sum may be a better option.
A pension buyout should be considered a part 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 Beck. “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.”
- First and foremost, 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.
- Second, make sure you have a plan for retirement. If you understand your needs, you will be better prepared to understand which option is right for you if you do receive a lump sum offer. Because these offers usually have a limited window for election, it will be more difficult to make an educated and informed decision without knowing, in advance, your total retirement financial picture. Using Fidelity Income Strategy Evaluator® (login required) and Retirement Income Planner can get you started.
- If you decide to take a lump sum in lieu of monthly pension payments, you may want to 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 an 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.