Company pensions explained Defined benefit and final salary pensions

Defined benefit pension schemes offer more certainty than defined contribution schemes

A defined benefit pension scheme - sometimes called a final salary pension scheme - is one that promises to pay out an income based on how much you earn when you retire.

Unlike defined contribution (DC) pensions, the amount you’ll get at retirement is guaranteed, and it will be paid directly to you – you won't have to use your pension pot to decide your next move. 

This guide explains how final salary schemes work, and how you can work out how much income you could get in retirement.

Go further: My retirement: what do I need to know? - help with your retirement decisions in one complete guide

Final salary pensions - the different types

If you've saved into a final salary pension scheme, your savings, along with the contributions of your employer and the tax relief you receive from the government, have been invested in the stock market over your working years.

But the income you ultimately receive from your pension is a guaranteed, pre-agreed amount. This is why they are called 'defined benefit' pensions.

There are two types of defined benefit pension. 

  • Final salary schemes are based on how much you're paid when you finally retire. 
  • Career average schemes are based on an average of your salary across your career.

Both types of pension provide valuable benefits, the biggest of which is something called 'index-linking.' This means that your pension income is guaranteed to rise each year, so that it can keep up with rising prices in the future.

This protection is usually capped at 2.5% a year, although in some cases it's linked to inflation measured by the Retail Prices Index. 

Other benefits of final salary pensions

Other benefits of final salary pension schemes include:

  • Death in service payments to spouses, partners or dependants if you die before reaching pensionable age
  • Full pension if you have to retire early through ill health
  • Reduced pension if you retire early, although this can’t be done before age 55.

Final salary pensions - how to work out your income

If you've saved into a final salary pension scheme during your career, it will provide you an income for your retirement based on three key factors:

  • The number of years you have paid into the scheme
  • Your salary – this might be your final salary when you retire, or your average salary across your career
  • Your pension scheme's 'accrual rate' - this is a formula that's used to calculate your final retirement income.
  • This 'accrual rate' a fraction of your salary (usually 1/60 or 1/80), and it’s multiplied by the number of years you’ve been in the scheme. 

Let's look at how this works in practice.

  • Your final salary when you retire is £30,000.
  • You've worked at your company for 40 years.
  • Your company uses an accrual rate of 1/60th.
  • Your annual pension would be £20,000 (40 (years) x 1/60th (accrual) x £30,000 (final salary).

Go further: Which? comparison tables - our tables let you search the latest rates for all available savings and Isa accounts to boost your retirement income

Final salary pensions - taking a lump sum

When you retire, the government rewards you for saving into a pension by allowing you to take 25% of your savings completely free of tax. This is commonly called a lump sum, and taking it will reduce the amount of income you receive from your pension.

With final salary pensions, the way this is calculated is complicated. It's based on the schemes 'commutation factor', which represents how much of a lump sum you get for every £1 you give up in income. So if you have a commutation factor of 12, you get £12 lump sum for every £1 you give up. 

You will need to contact your pension scheme to find out how much lump sum you will get from your final salary pension. 

Go further: Should I take a lump sum from my pension? - weigh up the pros and cons of taking a lump sum

The decline of final salary pensions

Final salary pension schemes are advantageous for members because the scheme takes all the investment risk and is obliged to meet the 'pension promise' of a pre-defined amount of income made to each member, regardless of how underlying investments have performed. This means final salary pension schemes are riskier for employers.

Final salary pension schemes are also becoming more expensive as people live longer, because they have to pay out for longer. For these reasons, most private sector schemes have now been closed to new members, and replaced by defined contribution schemes.

Go further: Defined contribution pension schemes - get to grips with the other type of company pension

Protection for insolvent pension schemes

The open-ended nature of the ‘pension promise’ has led some pension funds with insufficient funds to meet future commitments. So, to protect members of insolvent employers where there is a shortfall in the pension scheme, the Pension Protection Fund (PPF) was established by government to cover schemes that fail from April 2005 onwards.

The PPF ensures that: 

  • Pensioners continue to receive the full amount due up to a cap of £36,401.19 at age 65 
  • Others receive 90% of their expected pension - to a current maximum of £32,761.07 a year at age 65. 
  • It is funded by a general levy on occupational salary-related schemes.

Useful link: Pension Protection Fund - learn more about how this fund works on its website.

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