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If you participate in a traditional pension plan at work (technically known as a qualified defined benefit plan), you’ll generally be entitled to receive monthly benefits from the plan after you retire. These benefits are usually based on your age at retirement, as well as your years of service and your average earnings with the company. The normal form of benefit is typically a single life annuity. That is, an annuity that makes monthly payments to you while you’re alive, and stops upon your death.
If you’re not married at retirement, federal law requires that your benefit be paid as a single life annuity, unless you elect a different payment option. If you are married when you retire, federal law requires that your benefit be paid as a qualified joint and survivor annuity (QJSA), unless you elect another payment option. The QJSA is an annuity that pays monthly benefits to you while you’re alive, and continues to pay at least 50 percent of your benefit to your spouse upon your death.
Depending on your plan’s provisions, you may have other payout options to choose from as well. Any optional form of benefit offered by your plan must be at least as valuable (actuarially speaking) as the single life annuity. You’ll want to select a payment option that will provide you with sufficient retirement income. In addition, if you’re married, you’ll want to be sure that your spouse will have sufficient income in the event that he or she outlives you.
Caution:If the present value of your pension benefit is $5,000 or less at your retirement date, the plan can pay your benefit in a lump sum without your (or your spouse’s) consent. If you fail to choose whether to receive the distribution in cash or to roll it over to an IRA, and the present value of your benefit exceeds $1,000, your plan is required to automatically roll the money over to an IRA established on your behalf.
The payments you’ll receive under a qualified joint and survivor annuity (QJSA) are generally smaller than you would receive with a single life annuity because they continue until both you and your spouse have died. The single-life annuity provides a larger monthly payment because it’s paid over a shorter period of time–one lifetime instead of two. Payments stop once you, the plan participant, die.
The QJSA is typically “actuarially equivalent” to the single life annuity. That is, the present value of the smaller QJSA benefit (payable for a longer period of time) is equal to the present value of the larger single life annuity benefit (payable for a shorter period of time), based on your life expectancy and that of your spouse.
However, some employers “subsidize” the QJSA. Subsidizing the QJSA occurs when your employer’s plan does not reduce the benefit payable during your joint lives (or reduces it less than actuarially allowed), despite the longer payout period, making the actuarial value of the QJSA greater than that of the single life annuity option. It’s important for you to know whether your employer subsidizes the QJSA, so that you can make an informed decision about which payment option to select.
Example(s):Mary is a participant in her employer’s defined benefit plan, and is married. Mary’s pension benefit, payable as a single life annuity, is $3,000 per month beginning at age 65. Mary’s benefit payable as a QJSA is $2700 per month, with 50 percent of her benefit (which is $1,350) continuing to her husband after her death. Mary’s benefit is not subsidized, because the benefit payable during her lifetime is actuarially reduced so that the present values of the QJSA and the single life annuity are equal.
Example(s):John is a participant in his employer’s defined benefit plan, and is married. His pension benefit payable as a single life annuity is $3,000 per month beginning at age 65. His benefit payable as a QJSA is $3,000 per month, with 50 percent of his benefit (which is $1,500) continuing to his wife after his death. John’s QJSA is subsidized. The benefit payable during John’s lifetime is not reduced, even though benefits will be paid over both John’s and his spouse’s lifetimes. The present value of the QJSA is greater than the present value of the single life annuity.
Federal law requires that the survivor annuity portion of a QJSA be at least 50 percent of the amount you receive during your joint lives. However, depending on the terms of your employer’s plan, you may be able to elect a spousal survivor benefit of up to 100 percent of the amount you receive during your joint lives. Generally, the greater the survivor benefit you elect, the smaller the amount you will receive during your lifetime (unless your employer subsidizes the survivor annuity).
Tip:For plan years beginning after December 31, 2007, the Pension Protection Act of 2006 provides that if the survivor annuity provided by a plan’s QJSA is less than 75 percent, a participant must be allowed instead to elect a 75 percent survivor annuity. If the survivor annuity provided by the plan’s QJSA is greater than or equal to 75 percent, the participant must be allowed to elect a 50 percent survivor annuity. This qualified optional survivor annuity must be actuarially equivalent to a single annuity for the life of the participant. (Generally, a later effective date applies to collectively bargained plans.) You and your spouse should receive an explanation of the QJSA (including your right to waive the QJSA benefit), and a discussion of the relative values of the payment options available to you. Be sure you discuss your options with your spouse before making an election.
Tip:The QJSA must be at least as valuable as any optional form of benefit available to you.
Caution: Your plan can require that you be married for one year before you’re eligible to receive your pension benefit in the form of a QJSA.
Caution: Special rules apply to plan participants who have been divorced. In some cases, your previous spouse may be entitled to the QJSA if required by a court’s qualified domestic relations order (QDRO). Make sure to discuss your particular situation with a qualified professional.
You may waive the QJSA with your spouse’s written consent during the waiver period. The waiver period is generally the 180-day period prior to your annuity starting date. Assuming the QJSA is available to you, and your spouse agrees to a waiver, the two of you may have a difficult decision to make. If you opt for the QJSA, you have the security of knowing that your spouse will receive a guaranteed monthly income after you die. Also, choosing a QJSA often entitles both spouses to continued health coverage and other benefits that might otherwise be lost. On the other hand, waiving the QJSA in favor of a single life annuity or other payout will often increase the monthly benefit you’ll receive during your joint lifetimes. However, your spouse will lose the benefit of guaranteed survivor benefits over his or her lifetime after you die.
Caution: Be sure to seek qualified professional advice, since choosing a pension payout option can be complex, and the decision will impact your financial future and that of your spouse. The decision to waive the QJSA can be one of the most important retirement decisions you will make.
With a QJSA, payments continue as long as either you or your spouse is alive. By contrast, with a single life annuity, payments last for your lifetime and cease upon your death. For example, if you received one payment after retirement and then died, the single life annuity would provide no further pension payments. Your spouse would receive nothing. As noted above, the QJSA will normally be the most valuable form of benefit available to you, and is sometimes subsidized, so consider your options carefully.
Why would you waive the QJSA and instead opt for a single life annuity knowing that payments will stop at your death? One reason is that, as discussed earlier, the single life annuity generally pays a larger monthly benefit than the joint and survivor annuity. That’s because the payments are designed to last for a smaller number of years (i.e., one life expectancy instead of two). But that’s not the only consideration. Some other factors to consider include:
Some traditional defined benefit plans allow you to take a lump-sum payment in lieu of an annuity (again, you’ll need your spouse’s consent if you’re married). Whether to take the lump sum instead of an annuity can be a difficult decision. If you take a lump sum, you’ll be giving up guaranteed income for your life (and your spouse’s life if you’re married). You’ll also assume the risk (and the potential reward) of investing the assets yourself. You’ll need to make an educated guess as to whether the lump sum will ultimately be more valuable to you than the annuity benefit–but this will depend on your actual investment experience, how long you (and your spouse) live, inflation, and other factors that are currently unknown. When making your comparison, you’ll also need to consider whether your annuity benefit would have been eligible for inflation (COLA) adjustments, or early retirement or other employer subsidies.
Caution: The guaranteed income is subject to the claims-paying ability of the annuity issuer.
Tip:To get a quick idea of the value of a lump-sum payment versus the plan’s annuity benefit, consider how much of an annuity benefit you can purchase outside the plan with that lump-sum payment. A lump sum might be an attractive alternative if you’re in poor health. If you roll the funds over to an IRA, your beneficiary will receive any balance left at your death. Your beneficiary can then take withdrawals, or convert all or part of the balance to an annuity. You may also find the lump sum attractive if you have other resources available and don’t immediately need the income when you retire.
Caution: While you can use all or part of your lump sum to purchase an annuity, the expenses involved may cause you to wind up with a smaller annuity benefit than you could have received from your pension plan (you’ll be paying the expense of purchasing the annuity instead of the pension plan).
The advantages of selecting a lump sum include:
Disadvantages of selecting a lump sum include:
As discussed earlier, under most pension plans (and depending on various factors such as the age of the two spouses), a single life annuity will pay out substantially more per month than a QJSA. Most people would like to have that extra income during their retirement years. However, most people are also concerned about providing for their spouses if they should die first. One technique for solving this dilemma is to choose the single life annuity, and then purchase insurance on your life with your spouse named as beneficiary. By selecting a single life annuity along with the purchase of a life insurance policy on the participant’s life, some couples can increase their income during retirement while also providing for the surviving spouse’s financial future. You should consider whether this strategy, commonly called pension maximization using life insurance, is appropriate for you.
Depending on the distribution options your plan offers, you may be able to waive the single life annuity or QJSA (with your spouse’s consent), and receive payments from the plan in some other form instead. You may also be able to choose a joint annuitant other than your spouse. In general, the same considerations described above in “Waiving the QJSA” apply when determining whether to waive the QJSA in favor of an optional form of benefit. The following are some of the more common optional forms of benefit available in defined benefit pension plans.
If you die before you begin receiving distributions from your defined benefit plan, your surviving spouse may be entitled to what is known as a qualified pre-retirement survivor annuity (QPSA). The QPSA is an immediate annuity, payable for your surviving spouse’s life, that is at least equal in value to the QJSA benefit your spouse would have received if you had retired upon reaching the plan’s earliest retirement age (or, if later, on your date of death). You may waive the right to a QPSA, and have your death benefits paid in some other form or to a beneficiary other than your spouse instead, but only if the plan permits such an election and your spouse consents to the waiver in a timely-filed and witnessed writing. If a QPSA waiver is allowed, you and your spouse should receive an explanation of the QPSA, and a description of the financial effect, if any, that selecting or waiving the QPSA will have on your normal retirement benefit. Because waiving the QPSA will generally mean that your surviving spouse will not receive a survivor annuity if you die before you retire, be sure to fully discuss the decision with your spouse and your financial professional.
Caution: If you’ve been divorced, a court’s qualified domestic relations order (QDRO) can require that your QPSA be paid to your prior spouse. Be sure to discuss your individual situation with a qualified professional.
In general, retirement plan distributions are subject to ordinary federal (and possibly state) income tax. The one exception is if you have ever made any after-tax contributions to the plan. Because those dollars have been taxed already, they will not be taxed again when they are paid out to you. While uncommon, if you’ve made after-tax contributions to your defined benefit plan, a portion of each annuity payment made to you will not be subject to income tax.
Tip: States generally can not tax your pension benefit if you’re not a resident of the state at the time you receive your payment. This is true even if you earned the pension in that state but have since moved.
Financial Planning and Investment Advice offered through STA Wealth Management (STA), a registered investment advisor.
STA does not provide tax or legal advice and the information presented here is not specific to any individual’s personal circumstances. To the extent that this material concerns tax matters or legal issues, it is not intended or written to be used, and cannot be used, by a taxpayer for the purpose of avoiding penalties that may be imposed by law. Each taxpayer should seek independent advice from a tax professional based on his or her individual circumstances. We encourage you to check irs.gov for the most up to date rules and regulations.
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