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UK Pensions Reform Overview

By David Odonoghue
This article is published on: 31st December 2014

This year brings about major changes in UK pension rules. Under the reform of ‘Freedom and Choice in Pensions’, people will be provided with more choice about how and when they can take their benefits from certain types of pension arrangements.

Following proposals first made in March last year, subsequent consultation resulted in the Pensions Taxation Bill being published in August, with further amendments being made in October. Additionally, some provisions were clarified in last month’s UK Autumn Budget Statement. Therefore, subject to there not being any further changes before the eventual enactment of the legislation, we can be reasonably certain of the new rules.

To understand the reform, you need to understand the two main different types of pensions. The first is the defined benefit pension (DBP), where your employer basically promises to pay you a certain amount of pension, which is calculated by reference to your service and your earnings. DBPs are a rare breed now, as employers have found this type of arrangement too costly to maintain. This is because the liability for financing the scheme falls upon the employer (after anything that the individual is required to contribute) and if there is any shortfall in assets to meet the liabilities – perhaps because of poor investment returns – the employer must put more money into the scheme.

The second type of pension is what is known as a money purchase plan (MPP). You put money into an MPP, perhaps your employer does/did also, as well as the government in the form of tax rebates and in the past, national insurance contribution rebates. Maybe your ‘MPP’ was not through an employer at all and you just set up something directly yourself with an insurance company. They are several different types of MPP arrangements, but they all result in the same basic outcome, i.e. the amount of the pension that you get depends on the value of your ‘pension pot’ at retirement and so the investment risk rests with you. There is no promise from anyone and therefore, no certainty of what you might receive.

The proposed reform is all about the MPP, although there is nothing to stop a person from transferring their private DBP to a MPP, if they have left the service of the former employer.

The majority of the changes will be effective from 6th April 2015 and these will apply to ‘money purchase’ pension arrangements only. Therefore, people with deferred pension benefits in funded defined benefit plans, who wish to avail themselves of the changes, must first of all transfer their benefits to a money purchase scheme. Members of unfunded public sector pension schemes will not be allowed to have such a transfer.

Under the new rules, people will be able to take all of their ‘pension pot’ as a one-off lump sum or as several separate lump sum payments. For UK resident taxpayers, 25% of each amount will be paid tax-free and the balance will be subject to income tax at the marginal rate (the highest tax rate being 45%).

Alternatively, it will be possible to take 25% of the total fund as a cash payment (again, tax-free for UK residents) and then draw an income from the remaining fund (taxed at marginal rate). The commencement of income withdrawal can be deferred for as long as the person wishes. Furthermore, there will be no minimum or maximum amount imposed on the amount that can be withdrawn in any year.

The Annual Allowance, which is the amount of tax-relieved pension contributions that can be paid into a pension fund, is currently £40,000 per annum. For anyone who flexibly accesses their pension funds in one of the above ways, the Annual Allowance will be reduced to £10,000 for further amounts contributed to a money purchase arrangement.

However, the full Annual Allowance of up to £40,000 (depending upon the value of new money purchase pension savings) will be retained for further defined benefit pension savings.

The ‘small pots’ rules will still apply for pension pots valued at less than £10,000. People will be allowed to take up to three small pots from non-occupational schemes and there is no limit of the number of small pot lump sums that may be paid from occupational schemes. 25% of the pot will be tax-free for a UK resident. Accessing small pension pots will not affect the Annual Allowance applicable to other pension savings.

The required minimum pension age from which people can start to draw upon their pension funds will be set as age 55, in all circumstances (except in cases of ill-health, when it may be possible to access the funds earlier). However, this will progressively change to age 57 from 2028; subsequently, it will be set as 10 years below the State Pension Age.

The widely reported removal of the 55% ‘Death Tax’ on UK pension funds has been clarified. Thus, whether or not any retirement benefits have already been paid from the money purchase fund (including any tax-free lump sum), the following will apply from 6th April 2015:

  • In the event of the pension member’s death before age 75, the remaining pension fund will pass to any nominated beneficiary and the beneficiary will not have any UK tax liability; this is whether the fund is taken as a single lump sum or accessed as income drawdown; or
  • If the pension member is over age 75 at death, the beneficiary will be taxed at their marginal rate of income tax on any income drawn from the fund, or at the rate of 45% if the whole of the fund is taken as a lump sum. From April 2016, lump sum payments will be taxed at a beneficiary’s marginal tax rate.

There will be more flexibility for annuities purchased after 6th April 2015. For example it will be possible to have an annuity that decreases, which could be beneficial to bridge an income gap, perhaps before State pension benefits begin. In addition, there will no longer be a limit on the guarantee period, which is currently set at a maximum of 10 years.

French residents can take advantage of the new flexibility and providing that you are registered in the French income tax system, it is possible to claim exemption from UK tax under the terms of the Double Taxation Treaty between the UK and France. However, there are French tax implications to be considered, as follows:

  •  you will be liable to French income tax on the payments received, although in certain strict conditions, it may be possible for any lump sum benefits to be taxed at a fixed prélèvement rate;
  •  if France is responsible for the cost of your French health cover, you will also be liable for social charges (CSG & CDRS) of 7.1% on the amounts received;
  •  the former pension assets will become part of your estate for French inheritance purposes, as well as becoming potentially liable for wealth tax (i.e. if your net taxable assets exceed the wealth tax entry level).

Therefore, as a French resident, it is essential to seek independent financial advice from a professional who is well versed in both the UK pension rules and the French tax rules before taking any action. Such advice should also include examining whether or not a transfer of your pension benefits to a Qualifying Recognised Overseas Pension Scheme (QROPS) could be in your best interest.

Note, that for those expats who already have transferred pensions to a QROPS or are thinking of doing so? the Pension Taxation Bill makes provision for the proposed UK pension reform to follow through to such schemes.

However, a complication exisits, due to the fact that the separate UK QROPS Regulations do not necessarily allow people to fully cash in their pesion funds in all circumstances.

The Pensions Taxation Bill does already make some provision for the proposed UK pension reform to follow through to Qualifying Recognised Overseas Pension Schemes (QROPS). However, a complication exists, due to the fact that the separate UK QROPS Regulations do not necessarily allow people to fully cash in their pension funds, in all circumstances.

Therefore, before the new flexible rules could apply to QROPS, the UK Regulations must be amended and it is understood that there is on-going work in this regard. Whether this work will be completed before 5th April 2015 is not known.

However, even if the UK does amend the QROPS Regulations, it will then fall to individual QROPS jurisdictions to make the necessary changes to their own internal pension law. For the well-regulated jurisdictions, it cannot be ruled out that their own Regulators may not agree entirely with the UK’s ideas of flexibility! In effect, there could be a preference to ensure that pension funds are used only for the purpose of providing retirement income for life, with the possibility of income continuing to a member’s dependants.

In any event, the taxation outcome of someone fully cashing-in their pension fund (whether whilst still in a UK pension arrangement or if later allowed, from a QROPS) is likely to be a sufficient practical deterrent for anyone actually wanting to do this. Therefore, for someone who has left the UK, a QROPS should continue to be a viable alternative to retaining UK pension benefits, particularly since the advantages of a QROPS have not changed. However, everyone’s situation is unique and this is why seeking advice from a competent professional is essential.

Article by David Odonoghue

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