Pensions and employees

Updated on 15 August 2016

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.

Employers are joining the scheme between 2012 and 2018, and so employees will gradually be phased in.

Auto-enrolment works alongside a scheme called ‘NEST’ (National Employment Savings Trust). This is a UK-wide pension plan backed by the Government, which is intended to act as a top-up for the state pension.

If you meet certain conditions, your employer either has to enrol you in a ‘NEST’ pension, or put you into the company's existing pension plan, provided that the plan is as good as a NEST pension. NEST has its own website providing more information.

Through auto-enrolment, you may find yourself with a pension plan for the first time. You will be building up a pot of money for your retirement in a pension plan, which could also be receiving contributions from your employer and the government. This should increase your overall pension savings for the future.

It also means you could see a reduction in your take-home wages, as you will have to contribute to the pension unless you opt out (or unless your employer pays all of the minimum contributions due under the auto enrolment scheme, but most employers will expect you to pay in). 

Am I an eligible worker for auto-enrolment?

Most employees will automatically be enrolled into their employer’s pension scheme, unless they actively opt out, by saying that they do not wish to join the pension scheme.

Employers must automatically enrol all staff who are:

  • aged 22 to state pension age
    (You can work out when you will reach state pension age by using the calculator on the GOV.UK website.)
  • working in the UK – under a contract of employment
    (Note: people working on an independent basis may also be covered if they provide their services personally and cannot send a substitute. These people are known as "workers" for employment law purposes.)  
  • earning over £10,000 a year (in 2016/17).

If you fall into this definition, your employer has to automatically enrol you and pay the minimum legally required level of contributions (unless you opt out). This will be based on a percentage of your earnings. 

It is possible for an employer to legitimately postpone offering a pension scheme to their staff for up to three months, meaning that if you are with an employer for a very short period only, for example in a seasonal job, you might not be offered auto-enrolment, even if you are otherwise eligible. But note that you can choose to opt in to the pension scheme during this period. 

If you do not initially meet the eligibility criteria to be automatically enrolled, you may do at some stage in the future, for example if your earnings change. Your employer must monitor you and if you become eligible for automatic enrolment at a later date, enrol you at that point. 

What happens if I was already in a workplace pension before auto enrolment?

There may be no changes, depending on the type of scheme your employer had in place before. Pension contributions will still have to be deducted through the payroll for those employees who have schemes in place when the rules are changed. You might have to pay in more in future to the pension, or your employer might have to start adding contributions to your plan.  

Can I opt out of auto-enrolment?

You can opt out of a scheme, and provided this is done within one month of joining, any contributions made should be refunded. You may ask to rejoin the scheme at a later date.

Your employer cannot:

  • encourage or force you to opt out of the scheme
  • unfairly dismiss or discriminate against you for staying in a workplace pension scheme
  • imply that someone is more likely to get a job if they choose to opt out of the pension scheme
  • close a workplace pension scheme without automatically enrolling all members into another one

What if I am not eligible for auto-enrolment?

Certain other staff can ask to join a pension scheme, even if they have not been automatically enrolled. Your employer may have to pay into it on your behalf depending on whether you are a ‘non-eligible jobholder’ or an ‘entitled worker.’

  • Non-eligible jobholders – for example those aged 22 to state pension age, earning from £5,824 (in 2016/17) to £10,000 or those aged 16-21. These workers are entitled to opt in, with an employer contribution.
  • Entitled workers – for example those earning under £5,824 (in 2016/17). These workers are entitled to join a scheme but are not entitled to an employer contribution if they do so.

You can find more information about this on the Pensions Advisory Service website.

I have concerns about auto-enrolment; what can I do?

If you are concerned about the way your employer is dealing with automatic enrolment or managing your workplace pension, you can contact The Pensions Regulator. There is more information on The Pensions Regulator website.

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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 £11,000 in 2016/17.

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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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