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Barnett Waddingham
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What is commutation?

Published by Julian Mainwood on

The ability to take a tax free lump sum on retirement has long been a popular feature of pension arrangements.  How the lump sum is generated depends on the type of pension arrangement.  For instance in a defined contribution (DC) arrangement (such as a personal pension) part of the fund at retirement is paid as a lump sum with the balance being used to purchase a pension.  In a defined benefit (DB) arrangement (such as a final salary pension) the cash is usually defined as an addition to the pension or by commutation.

Commutation is defined as giving up part or all of the pension payable from retirement in exchange for an immediate lump sum.  Commutation factors (usually calculated by the Scheme Actuary) are used to determine the amount of pension which needs to be given up in order to provide the lump sum.  Therefore at retirement it is common for members to be offered the choice of taking their pension in full or as an alternative an immediate tax free cash lump sum and a lower residual pension (which allows for the pension given up to provide the cash).

How much cash?

Post 6 April 2006

Since 6 April 2006 (A-Day), the Pension Commencement Lump Sum (PCLS) that can be taken on retirement is broadly calculated as 25% of the total value of a member’s crystallised benefits.

One basic method of calculating the PCLS available is shown below.  Please note that this method will only calculate cash by commutation and will not work for schemes where cash is calculated in addition or for schemes with Additional Voluntary Contributions (AVCs).

PCLS = Pension ÷ [3/ 20 + 1/Commutation Factor]

Assuming a commutation factor of 10 and a pre-commutation pension of £10,000 a year, the PCLS would be £40,000.

£10,000 / [3/20 +1/10] = £40,000

The residual pension available is calculated as follows:

Residual pension = full pension - [PCLS/ commutation factor]

So using the example above

£10,000 – [£40,000/ 10] = £6,000 a year

Commutation factors are not fixed and will vary from scheme to scheme and often change depending on the member’s age.  The higher the commutation factor used, the greater the cash that can be generated.

It is therefore important to ensure that the PCLS does not exceed 25% of the value of the member’s crystallised benefits.

Based on the example above, the value of the benefits crystallised is:

[Residual pension x 20] + PCLS amount

[£6,000 x 20] + £40,000 = £160,000

PCLS available = £160,000 x 25% = £40,000

Retaining pre A-Day limits

Protected cash

If a scheme has retained links to the pre A-Day limits, there is the possibility that the member may have a protected entitlement to a PCLS greater than 25% of the value of the member’s retirement fund.

This amount will have been calculated based on the member’s cash entitlement at A-Day calculated on the pre A-Day tax regime limits and will be revalued in line with the increase in the standard lifetime allowance.  From 6 April 2012, this increase factor is 1.2 (1.8/1.5), despite the lifetime allowance reducing from £1.8 million to £1.5 million.

Full commutation

There are some circumstances where a member’s pension can be paid entirely as a lump sum (even if it exceeds the limits above).

Post 6 April 2006, members may be entitled to take their entire pension as a trivial commutation lump sum as long as certain criteria are met.

HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) sets out strict conditions under which schemes can offer trivial commutation payments to a member. The conditions are:

  • the member must have reached age 60
  • the payment must extinguish all the member’s benefits under the scheme making the trivial payment
  • the total value of all the members’ benefits from all registered pension schemes, including benefits already taken (but excluding any trivial lump sums taken before 6 April 2006) must be less than £18,000 on the nominated date
  • all trivial commutation payments after 6 April 2006 must be made within a twelve month window
  • the member must have available lifetime allowance to pay the lump sum

Assuming that these criteria are met, a member may take a trivial commutation lump sum where 25% of the fund is paid tax free and the remainder is taxed through PAYE.  For defined benefit schemes, the actual amount payable is calculated using scheme specific commutation factors as prescribed by the Scheme Actuary.

Benefits must be valued on a specific date chosen by the member known as the nominated date.  If no date is chosen, the nominated date starts on the date that the first trivial payment is made.

Any trivial commutation lump sums must be paid out within twelve months of the date of the first payment and the first payment must be made within three months of the nominated date.

Post A-Day, it is the member’s option to elect commutation on the grounds of triviality; schemes are not permitted to force a member to commute their benefits.  Members must complete a declaration confirming their total benefits before any trivial commutation lump sum payment can be made.  Payment of a trivial commutation lump sum is not a Benefit Crystallisation Event, but the member needs to have available lifetime allowance for the payment to be made.

Full commutation of Guaranteed Minimum Pensions (GMP)

GMPs may be fully commuted subject to the following Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) provisions:

  • Where GMP due date (65 for men and 60 for women) has not yet been reached and fixed or limited revaluation applies, the member’s GMP must be increased by the relevant revaluation rate up to the GMP due date.  This will determine the benefit to be valued for the purpose of testing the member’s benefits against the triviality limit of £18,000.
  • Where GMP revaluation is in line with s148 orders the GMP cannot be trivially commuted until the member reaches GMP due date, as no entitlement can remain in the scheme for the member following trivial commutation.  As all the s148 orders will not be known until the member reaches GMP due date the value of the trivial commutation will not be known in advance, and therefore cannot be tested against the £18,000 limit to be able to extinguish all entitlements in the scheme.
  • Where the GMP is increased by limited rate revaluation, the £18,000 test must be carried out against the maximum possible revaluation (i.e. 5% pa) from date of leaving to GMP due date.  It would not be acceptable to use ‘real’ past s148 values and switch to a 5% assumption for the future as this might underestimate the GMP.

Subject to the provisions above, you can commute the spouse’s GMP at the same time as trivially commuting the member’s GMP.  If the spouse’s GMP is not commuted at the same time, it will need to be held in a separate arrangement as one condition for the payment of a trivial commutation lump sum is that it extinguishes the member’s entitlement to benefits under the scheme.

Once a spouse’s GMP comes into payment, it may be trivially commuted provided that it, along with the remainder of the spouse’s entitlement to benefits under the scheme, is within the £18,000 limit.

Please note that the commutation of benefits including GMP on triviality is subject to the scheme rules allowing for such commutation to take place.  The scheme rules should be checked to ensure they have been updated to reflect the new limits.

‘Small lump sum’ payment

With effect from 1 December 2009, assuming that scheme rules have been amended to allow for it to take place, it is possible for a member to commute their entire benefits from an occupational scheme in return for a one-off 'small lump sum'.  A ‘small lump sum’ payment may be made if the scheme has more than 50 members and the following criteria are met:

  • the member must have reached age 60 and not be (or connected to) a controlling director of a sponsoring employer of this or any related scheme
  • the ‘small lump sum’ payment does not exceed £2,000 and extinguishes all entitlement to benefits under the scheme
  • with certain exceptions, there have been no transfers into the scheme relating to the member during the five years prior to the payment, unless the transfer-in was an ‘acceptable transfer’
  • no recognised transfer out must have taken place relating to the member from the scheme paying the small lump during the three years prior to the payment

In addition, the scheme must satisfy at least one of the following conditions:

  • the scheme existed on 1 July 2008
  • the scheme is a defined benefit scheme and the total assets held for defined benefits is more than half of the value of its total assets
  • there are at least 20 members of the scheme whose arrangements have an individual value greater than £2,000

For schemes with less than 50 members:

  • the member must have reached the age of 60 and not be (or connected to) a controlling director of a sponsoring employer of this or any related scheme
  • the ‘small lump sum’ commutation value of the benefits under the scheme and any related schemes (broadly speaking, schemes relating to the same employment; personal pension arrangements set up by the employer are ignored) must not exceed £2,000 in total - though payment of a one off lump sum is not required from all related schemes
  • the payment must extinguish the member’s benefit entitlement under the scheme
  • no recognised transfers-out relating to the member must have taken place from this or a related scheme during the three years prior to the payment

Full commutation for serious ill health

In the event of a member’s serious ill health (usually defined as life expectancy of less than one year), it is possible to commute the member’s benefits in return for a one-off lump sum.  It is possible for GMP rights to be commuted on the grounds of serious ill-health subject to the scheme retaining sufficient funds to provide for a survivor’s pension if the member is married or has a civil partner.

In what circumstances is commutation not allowed?

There are certain types of pension that cannot be given up to provide a lump sum.  These include:

  • GMPs - At present it is not possible to commute GMP except on the grounds of triviality.  Therefore only pension in excess of GMP can be commuted and if there is insufficient excess pension to provide the full GMP then the lump sum may need to be restricted accordingly.
  • AVCs - Since A-Day it has been possible for members to take the whole of their AVC fund as a lump sum (regardless of when they started paying) so long as this is within the overall authorised limits.  Prior to A-Day, AVCs could not in general be taken as cash, except where arrangements to pay AVCs were made before 8 April 1987.
  • Spouses’ and Dependants’ pensions - Generally it is not possible to commute spouses’ or dependants’ pensions other than on the grounds of triviality.

Protected Rights – changes to legislation from 6 April 2012

With effect from 6 April 2012, the abolition of contracting-out on a defined contribution basis means that protected rights are no longer categorised as a separate class of benefits.  Therefore, previous restrictions on these benefits no longer apply and such benefits can be treated in the same way as contracted-in benefits. Please note that this change in legislation does not override scheme rules and therefore restrictions may still remain unless scheme rules have been updated accordingly.

To commute or not to commute?

Individuals often find it difficult to decide whether to take a cash lump sum at retirement and from a financial perspective this does represent something of a gamble (unless you know how long you are going to live!).  For most people it will come down to a matter of personal choice.  On the one hand an individual might want the freedom of an up-front tax free lump sum to spend as they wish or possibly reinvest in other tax efficient ways.  However, on the other hand they may prefer the stability of a pension (albeit taxed) which might ultimately represent better value if paid for a long time.  As with all areas of financial planning individuals should seek independent financial advice if they are unsure on any of these areas.

More information

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About the author

  • Julian Mainwood

    Julian is involved in the administration of a wide range of occupational pension schemes. He advises clients on administration and governance aspects and is responsible for providing technical guidance to the administration teams.

    View Biography

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