Manage Your Pension

At a time when defined-benefit plans are becoming as rare as typewriters, consider yourself fortunate if you have a traditional pension to manage. Even so, the decisions you make about how you take your pension payout could have a significant impact on the amount of income you receive.

One of the first decisions you’ll probably have to make is whether to take your pension as a lump sum or as a lifetime payout. A lump sum could make sense if you have other assets, such as life insurance or a sizable investment portfolio, and if you’re comfortable managing your money (or paying someone else to do it for you). You’ll also have more flexibility to take withdrawals, and your investments could grow faster than the rate of inflation. What you don’t spend will go to your heirs.

A lifetime payout, however, offers protection against market downturns, and you won’t have to worry about outliving your money. You’ll probably also get a higher payout from your former employer than you could get by taking a lump sum and buying an annuity from an insurer.

Consider longevity when deciding how to structure your lifetime payout. Addicks married couples have a couple of basic options for their payments: single life or joint and survivor. Taking the single-life payment will deliver bigger monthly payments, but your pension will end when you die. By law, if you’re married, you must obtain your spouse’s consent before taking this option. With the joint-and-survivor alternative, payments will be smaller, but they’ll continue as long as you or your spouse is alive.

The survivor benefit is based on the pension participant’s benefit. Plans must offer a 50% option, which pays the survivor 50% of the joint benefit. Other survivor-benefit options range from 66% to 100% of the joint benefit. In most cases, the benefit drops no matter who dies first, unless you choose the 100% option.

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 In general, women who want lifetime income should take the pension’s monthly payout. Pension plans use gender-neutral calculations, which can further complicate the choice of monthly payments versus a lump sum. Because women tend to live longer than men, it’s highly likely that the pension plan will offer a higher payout than they could get on the open market. For example, a 65-year-old man who wants to buy an annuity that will provide $60,000 a year for life would need about $914,000, according to Immediateannuities.com. A 65-year-old woman would need about $955,000—roughly $40,000 more—to get the same amount of annual income. If you take the pension, however, your payment is based on your years of service and salary; your gender doesn’t play a role.

When it comes to converting the pension payment to a lump sum, however, gender neutrality can work against women. If their longer life expectancy could be taken into account, the lump sum would have to be larger to equate to the higher lifetime costs of the monthly payments.