What is a Pension?

The Government recently carried out a consultation on the structure of pensions based on a number of issues, one being the complexity of pensions… But what is a pension? And are they really complex?

A pension is simply a long-term savings vehicle for later in life. Traditionally, pensions were designed to generate income, replacing salary and therefore payments out coincided with ceasing work. Now money can be withdrawn from a pension at any time over the age of 55 (increasing to 57 from 2028) and money can be taken as income or lump sum(s).

Types of pension

There are broadly 3 different types of pensions:

  • the State Pension (provided by the State based on National Insurance Contributions)
  • Defined Benefit Pensions (where an employer promises a pension income based on salary and length of service)
  • Defined Contribution Pensions (where what you/your employer pay into the pension determines what you get out)

Here I will focus on the latter.

Pensions are simple

A pension is just like any other form of investment with certain tax advantages.

All investments whether it be an ISA (Individual Savings Account), a pension, a bond, or a general investment account all work in much the same way apart from their tax status. This is why they are often called “tax wrappers”.

Whatever tax wrapper you put your money into, it will be “invested” in much the same places whether it be cash, government or company loans, and commercial property or company shares. Your money will be “pooled” with other investors’ into funds that hold a mixture of these “assets” based on your attitude to risk, term of investment, and a number of other factors.

In essence, you could hold the same funds within your ISA as in your pension.

Back to pensions… What does the pension tax wrapper mean for your investment?

 1)    Whatever you pay in will earn tax relief

What does this mean?

The government will (currently) pay into your pension based upon the amount you pay in and your income tax rate (Basic, Higher, or additional). So based on the amount you pay in, you will receive tax relief at 20%, 40%, or 45% essentially refunding you with the tax you have paid.

For example:

Bob is a 20% taxpayer, he makes a regular contribution into his pension of £80 per month. Every month, he receives tax relief of £20. It, therefore, costs Bob £80 for £100 to be invested into his pension each month.

Audrey is a higher-rate taxpayer, like Bob, she receives £20 tax relief from the government into her pension. To claim the additional £20 she completes the relevant section on her tax return and receives either relief as a rebate at the end of the tax year, a reduction in her tax liability, or an alteration to her tax code. Thus the £100 contribution cost her £60.

The maximum a tax-payer can contribute and receive tax relief is either the equivalent of 100% of their relevant UK taxable earnings or £40,000 (2022/23) whichever is lower. However, if you have income over £200,000, the amount you can pay in may be less than £40,000 as your allowance may be tapered down. Those with income over £312,000 will be limited to contributions of £4,000 per annum. The amount you can pay into a pension will also be limited to £4,000 when you have triggered the Money Purchase Annual Allowance. This is triggered when you take Income from Flexi-access Drawdown or take an uncrystallised pension lump sum (UFPLS).

Non-tax-payers can still receive tax relief up to a maximum of £3,600 or 100% of earnings, whichever is greater. If you have relevant income below £3,600 the maximum you can pay is £2,880 and you will receive £720 tax relief making a total (gross) contribution of £3,600.

Within some employer pension schemes, pension contributions will be taken from gross pay (before tax is deducted) therefore will not receive further tax relief.

 2)      The investments grow free from tax

What does this mean?

Any growth within a pension fund is not taxed

 3)      When you take your money out, 25% is tax-free and the rest is taxed at your marginal rate

What does this mean?

You can take money out of your pension from age 55 (increasing to 57 from 2028). When you come to take money out of your pension, 25% of the fund is free from tax (sometimes referred to as tax-free cash or pension commencement lump sum) with the rest taxed as income. In reality, the 25% doesn’t need to be taken as a lump sum and the rest doesn’t need to be taken as income. The manner in which the money can be taken is very flexible and will depend on the individual, their circumstances, tax position, and pension provider.

4) What happens to your pension when you die?

Pensions can be passed to a nominated beneficiary usually free from inheritance tax. The pension can be paid out as a lump sum, an annuity, or could be taken as a beneficiary’s pension.  If you die before age 75 there will be no tax to pay. If you die after age 75, the pension will be taxed at the beneficiary’s income tax rate. Not all pension plans offer all of the death benefit options. To find out more, you can read my blog What Happens to my Pension if I Die?

So, what is a pension?

A pension is a tax wrapper that has some advantages – tax relief on contributions and tax-free growth. Pensions also have some restrictions – money cannot be taken out until age 55 and only 25% is tax-free with the balance being taxed as income – unsurprising really when they were designed as long-term savings vehicles to provide income upon ceasing work.

The information contained within this document is correct as at the 2022/23 tax year and is based on current government legislation. This can (and probably will) change.



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