Pensions and employees

Updated on 27 July 2017

Pensions are a way of making sure you get a regular amount of money coming in during retirement. The UK Government gives tax relief on contributions you pay in to pensions. The idea is to encourage people to provide for their own retirement rather than rely on the state. This page gives some basic information on pensions.

Growth on your pension savings is generally free of tax. When pensions are paid out to you they are taxable, but you should be able to take some part of the pension as a tax free lump sum.

We cannot advise you as to which type of scheme might be best for you. We cannot advise on whether or not you should pay into a particular pension.

What are the types of pension I might have and how are they all different?

If you are an employee, you may have the option of different kinds of pension. You may pay into some of them automatically; you have to make an active decision to pay into others. You do not necessarily have to choose between pensions – you may be able to pay into more than one kind.

We look briefly at some of the main types that you may be able to have, but if you want more information on any of them, we suggest you go to our ‘tax basics section’.

What is the state pension?

The Government pays the state pension as a regular payment to eligible people who have reached state pension age. You can work out when you will reach state pension age by using the calculator on the GOV.UK website.

If you reach state pension age on or after 6 April 2016, you will fall under the flat rate state pension, known as the new state pension.

If you are an employee, and you earn more than a certain amount per week or per month, you will either be credited with National Insurance contributions (NIC) or pay NIC. The NIC you pay helps you to qualify to receive the state pension.

There is more information about the state pension and the new state pension in our ‘tax basics section’.

What are stakeholder and personal pensions?

You can set up a stakeholder pension or a personal pension plan yourself and invest in it personally, or your employer may offer you access to a group personal pension scheme through your job and may also pay into it – this will usually be the case if they do not have an occupational scheme for you to join. If they pay into it, it is a tax free benefit for you.

There is more information about retirement annuity schemes in our 'tax basics section'.

What are retirement annuity schemes?

If you took out a personal pension before 1 July 1988 it would have been called a retirement annuity policy.

You make payments to retirement annuity policies gross, without any tax taken off. You are still entitled to relief, but you need to get the tax relief through your Pay As You Earn (PAYE) coding notice or your self assessment tax return.

These ceased to be available to new members from July 1988, but contributions can still be paid into existing schemes.

What are occupational pensions?

An occupational pension, sometimes called a ‘works’ pension, is a pension scheme organised by your employer.

Occupational schemes are becoming increasingly rare and many are closed to new joiners. Your employer is more likely nowadays to offer you access to a group personal pension arrangement than a traditional works pension.

The scheme may be either a defined contribution scheme, also known as a money purchase scheme, or a defined benefit scheme, also known as a final salary scheme.

If you are a member of an occupational pension scheme, your employer is likely to contribute to it. If your employer makes a contribution to your occupational scheme, it is a tax free benefit for you.

Generally you can make extra payments of your own into the employer’s scheme. These are often called additional voluntary contributions (AVCs) or freestanding additional voluntary payments (FSAVCs). There are limits on the level of payments that can be made with tax relief, but these do not impact upon people on low incomes.

If you make contributions to an occupational scheme, your contributions are probably taken from your pay before your tax is worked out, so you get tax relief immediately, provided you are a taxpayer. For example, if you pay tax at the basic rate of 20% and authorise a monthly contribution of £50, the actual cost of the contribution to you will be only £40, and you save tax of £10 (£50 at 20%).

What is a rebate only personal pension or appropriate personal pension?

If you want information on this type of pension, visit the 'tax basics section'.

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What is auto-enrolment?

Many employers now have to have an ‘auto-enrolment’ pension scheme. This means that they have to automatically enrol eligible workers into a qualifying pension scheme, if they are not already in one. Workers not automatically enrolled will also be able to opt in to a pension scheme, if they wish.

We have produced an ‘Auto enrolment - worker factsheet’ giving the basics of this type of pension, and more detailed guidance can be found on our page: ‘What is automatic enrolment for employees?

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What are the rules for paying into pensions, and what tax relief do I get on contributions?

Providing your pension scheme provider agrees, there is no limit on the amount you can put into your pension. The tax relief you can get may be limited, however, and you should remember that once your money has been saved into a pension there are strict rules on how much you can take out and when you can take it. Heavy penalties can apply if you break these rules.

You can save in more than one pension scheme at the same time, for example, in both a personal pension and an occupational pension.

For more information on the rules for pension contributions, including tax relief and the annual and lifetime allowances, go to the ‘tax basics section’.

One point to note is that if you are a low-earner, you may wish to check which type of pension scheme your employer uses. If they use a ‘relief at source’ arrangement, the pension provider claims 20p tax relief back from HMRC for every 80p of your contribution received – no matter what the level of your earnings. This means that when you contribute 80p, £1 goes into your pension pot. Some pension providers do not use this method, and use a different approach to tax relief (called ‘net pay arrangements’), meaning employees do not get any tax relief if their earnings are less than £11,500 in 2017/18.

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When can I take my private pension?

Generally, the earliest you can take your personal pension is at age 55. You must start taking your pension by age 75.

For occupational pension schemes, your employer’s scheme rules give you details on pension age, but this will probably be around 55.

More information on the rules for taking your pensions is given in our 'pensioner section’.

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What happens if I leave my job?

If you are a member of a pension scheme set up by your employer and you leave your job – but you are not retiring – the pension pot is still yours.

You may have various options available to you, including:

  • leave the pension where it is and draw it when you retire;
  • continue paying into the pension after you leave;
  • transfer the pension to a different scheme;
  • get a refund of your pension contributions;
  • start to take your pension.

You should always contact your pension scheme administrator, to check the rules.

We suggest that you also seek independent advice before making a decision, as it may affect the amount of your future pension income.

There is more information on the GOV.UK website.

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Can I transfer my pension?

Some pension schemes allow you to transfer all or part of your pension pot to another pension scheme. Before making a transfer, you should check that both pension schemes will allow the transfer.

You might want to transfer your pension fund for various reasons. For example, if you have had several different employers, and as a result have a few smaller pension pots, you might want to bring them together. This might make administration and organisation easier for you in the future.

The decision to transfer a pension pot is not one you should take lightly, as you may incur charges and lose some rights.

There is more information on GOV.UK website.

As with all important investment decisions, we suggest that you seek independent advice.

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What happens if I give up work due to ill health?

Ill health

If you have to give up your job because of illness, you might be able to get your personal pension before the usual age limit of 55.

You must meet the criteria for ill health set by your pension scheme, and in addition, you must meet HMRC’s rules. HMRC's conditions are on the GOV.UK website.

If you do not meet the conditions and you receive pension income before you reach 55, you will have to pay tax at a rate of at least 40% on the ‘unauthorised payment’.

You cannot get your state pension before you reach state pension age.

Serious ill health

If you retire from your job due to serious ill health, you might qualify to take all your pension pot as a lump sum. Again, you must meet certain conditions, which are set out on the GOV.UK website. The conditions include that you must have evidence from a doctor confirming that you are not expected to live for longer than a year.

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Where can I find more information?

See our 'tax basics section' for a list of more sources of information.

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