How do I cash in my small 'works' pension (Trivial commutation)?

Updated on 23 June 2017

Pensions with small or ‘trivial’ values may, in some cases, be cashed in (‘commuted’) as a lump sum. These rules now apply only to certain types of employer or works pensions, and not to personal pensions (whether or not organised by your employer).

To which kinds of pension does ‘trivial commutation’ apply?

First, we might ask instead: to what kind of pension do these rules not apply? Since 6 April 2015, many pension schemes allow savers to benefit from ‘pensions flexibility’. This means you can usually take out as much as you like, when you like, from your pension.

Pensions flexibility applies to ‘defined contribution’ or ‘money purchase’ schemes. These are pensions in which you have built up a pot of savings. They might be:

  • personal pensions you have organised yourself,
  • group personal pensions organised by your employer, or
  • other works pensions that build up a pot of cash (rather than paying out benefits based upon how long you were with your employer’s pension scheme and how much you earned).

If you have the above types of pension, read our guide to tax on taking money from your pension flexibly. Trivial commutation will not apply to you.

So what kinds of pension are we left with, to which the ‘trivial commutation’ rules might apply? There are two possibilities:

  • final salary (defined benefit) pension plans. These are pensions provided by an employer from which the pension paid out to you is based upon how long you were with the scheme and how much you earned; or
  • certain employers’ defined contribution schemes (those that built up a pot of money) where a small pension is already being paid out to you. Note that the pension scheme has to be paying you the pension direct (called ‘in house’) – that is, the pot of savings has not been used to buy an annuity (an annuity is a regular income, usually paid for your lifetime by an insurance company).

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Can I use ‘pension flexibility’ instead?

You might be able to use the ‘pension flexibility’ rules instead for private sector final salary (defined benefit) pension plans if you first transfer the value to a defined contribution scheme. You will have to get advice before doing so unless your transfer value is under £30,000.

But if you are a member of a public sector defined benefit scheme, except for a Local Government scheme, transfers to defined contribution schemes will be restricted. (Although such transfers may be allowed in very limited circumstances.)

You will need to talk to your pension provider to establish the exact position in relation to the scheme that you are a member of.

For pensions already in payment, the answer is no – pension flexibility does not allow you to take a lump sum. Your only option is trivial commutation.

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What is cashing in my small pension (‘trivial commutation’)?

When you first become entitled to your pension, many pension providers offer the opportunity to convert the whole (100%) of a ‘small’ pension into a one-off cash payment. This is known as ‘trivial commutation’ and the cash received as a ‘trivial commutation lump sum’.

A quarter (25%) of the value of most pension schemes can be converted into tax free cash when the pension starts to be paid. This is the same for trivial commutation lump sums. So a quarter (25%) will be free of tax and the remaining three quarters (75%) will be taxable as normal income in the year in which it is paid.

If a trivial commutation lump sum is paid in exchange for a pension already in payment, all of it will be taxable as normal income in the year in which it is paid. This is because a tax-free lump sum will usually already have been paid when the pension began.

In all cases, there are rules about how much you can receive as a trivial commutation lump sum, and when you can receive it.

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What are the rules of trivial commutation?

You need to think about these rules of trivial commutation:

  • trivial commutation now applies only to ‘defined benefit’ pensions or certain other employer small pensions that are already being paid out. See: To which kinds of pension does ‘trivial commutation’ apply? 

  • the minimum age is 55, unless you meet certain ill-health conditions, or have a protected pension age due to your occupation – in which case, you may be able to get the money earlier;

  • your pensions must be worth £30,000 or less. See ‘can you explain the £30,000 limit?’ for how this is worked out;

  • you have 12 months from the date of taking the first trivial commutation lump sum to take any others. If you have had a trivial commutation payment in the past and more than 12 months has passed since, you cannot have another.

  • you do not need to cash in all of the pensions you have, but you must cash in the whole of any one pension that is being commuted. That means you could not, for instance, take £20,000 out of a £29,000 pension pot and leave the rest.  

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Can you explain the £30,000 limit?

Trivial commutation only applies to:

  • defined benefit pensions; and
  • certain employers’ defined contribution pensions (those that built up a pot of money) where a small pension is already being paid out to you. 

See: To which kinds of pension does ‘trivial commutation’ apply?

But to work out whether you can have a trivial commutation payment from a defined benefit pension, you have to work out whether all of your pensions – from any type of pension scheme, including personal pensions – are within the £30,000 limit. This includes valuing previous lump sums you have received from pensions, or pensions that are already being paid out to you as regular income.

In working out the £30,000 limit, you can ignore past lump sum payments you have taken under the ‘small pots’ rules.  

The date at which all of your pensions are valued can be up to three months before you take the first commutation payment.

How to work out whether your pensions are within the £30,000 limit depends on whether you are already receiving income from the pension or not.

For pensions not yet in payment

You can get a valuation for pensions which are based on your earnings and how long you were a member of the employer’s pension scheme (‘defined benefit’ pensions) from the scheme’s administrators. You should say that you need it for trivial commutation.

Personal pension valuations can be obtained from the insurance company that the pension is with. 

For pensions already in payment

As long as you meet the overall trivial commutation criteria, you can take a lump sum from an employer’s ‘in house’ pension scheme that is already in payment. To work out whether you are within the £30,000 limit, you will also need to value any other pensions already being paid.

To check against the £30,000 limit, pensions being paid are valued at 20 times the annual pension income. For example, a pension of £750 a year would be valued at £15,000 (20 x £750). If you received a tax free lump sum when the pension commenced, the amount of the lump sum is added to this value. See the example of Mel below. Please note that this valuation is for checking against the limit for tax purposes only and may not be the same as the commercial value of the scheme.

If you started receiving your pension before 6 April 2006, these are normally valued at 25 times the annual pension income as it was on 5 April 2006, and you do not need to add on any previous lump sums.

If you get a formal offer of commutation from a pension provider, you must get formal offers of commutation for all of the pensions you wish to commute within three months of the date of that first offer, and the first of them must actually be cashed in within that three month period. See the example of Kim below.

If you do not cash in the first pension within three months of the first offer, you will have to get new offers and valuations (start the whole process again).

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Are any additional payments allowed within the same tax rules?

Other rules may apply on top of the £30,000 limit for trivial commutation lump sum payments. For example:

  • cashing in ‘small pots’: for example lump sums from occupational and public service pension schemes which individually are worth less than £10,000 (note that there is no time limit on these payments as there is with trivial commutation); or payments which are made to rectify an error;
  • note that the ‘small pots’ rules also apply to up to three defined contribution pensions cashed in in full provided the value is within the £10,000 limit. With general pensions freedom, this rule now however has no obvious practical purpose except that such ‘small pots’ would not be included in the £30,000 trivial commutation valuation, as long as they are taken before the date your pensions are valued for trivial commutation purposes;
  • additional payments of up to £30,000 on the winding up of a pension scheme or to a beneficiary on death of the person entitled to the pension. These additional payments are not subject to the condition that they must be taken on or after your 55th birthday;
  • certain lump sum payments made in the event of serious ill-health.

As above, you may be able to use the ‘pensions flexibility’ rules if trivial commutation does not work in your circumstances, if you are first able to transfer your pension to a ‘defined contribution’ scheme. See: Can I use ‘pension flexibility’ instead?

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Do I have to pay tax on trivial commutation lump sum payments?

The pension payer will deduct tax under Pay As You Earn (PAYE) from the lump sum at the time of making the payment to you. How much tax is taken depends on your circumstances:

  1. If the trivial commutation lump sum comes from a pension scheme operated by your former employer – either their own scheme, or one operated for them by a specialist pension provider – the pension payer will normally deduct tax on the basis of the tax code that applied to your earnings immediately before retirement;
  2. In most other circumstances, the pension payer must deduct tax from the trivial commutation lump sum using a 'basic rate' tax code. This means that the pension payer must deduct tax from the taxable part of the lump sum at a flat rate of 20%. So, let’s say your trivial commutation lump sum is £10,000, £2,500 of that is tax-free and £7,500 is taxable. Using the basic rate code, tax of £1,500 will be taken off (£7,500 x20%).

In both cases the pension payer will operate the tax code on what is called “a non-cumulative basis” – in other words, the tax code takes no account of any ‘unused’ tax allowances or how much tax you have paid so far in the tax year. As a result, you could pay the wrong amount of tax on your lump sum. A basic rate code should give broadly the right tax deduction in many cases, but you may still need to check your position carefully.

The pension payer must provide you with a form P45, as if you were leaving a job, showing the taxable part of the trivial commutation lump sum and the amount of tax deducted. If your pension provider does not send you this, contact them and, if need be, refer them to HM Revenue & Customs’ (HMRC) Manuals PAYE93080, where it is confirmed that the pension provider should issue form P45 for trivial commutations.

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How do I claim a refund from HMRC?

You might pay the wrong amount of tax under PAYE when you receive a trivial commutation lump sum payment. Normally, HMRC will check your tax position based upon what they know about you at the end of each tax year and make any repayment due to you then. But you need to take care and check that any tax calculation and refund you receive from HMRC is correct.

If you are certain that you have paid too much tax, you can apply to have a tax refund before the end of the tax year. To do this, you should contact HMRC and ask them to send you a form P53 for completion. Or you can access the P53 claim form online in a number of ways:

  • Claim online – complete form P53 online if you have, or set up, a Government Gateway account;
  • Fill in a P53 online and then print out to send to HMRC; or
  • Print out a blank P53 to fill in by hand and then post to HMRC

Form P53 asks you to provide details of your taxable income for the whole of the tax year in which you receive the trivial commutation lump sum. This will probably require you to provide estimates of your income and tax deducted or paid for the rest of the year.

You should return the form to HMRC, together with parts 2 and 3 of the form P45 given to you when you received the trivial commutation lump sum.

If you do not complete a self assessment tax return, HMRC may ask you to complete a second form P53 after the end of the tax year to show actual figures and will make any necessary adjustments thereafter.

If you are not resident in the UK for tax purposes, for example if you have retired abroad, the above arrangements will not be applicable to you. Instead you should contact HMRC and ask to be sent a form R43. Alternatively you can download a form R43 from the GOV.UK website. You may be able to claim relief under a double taxation agreement. There is more information on how to do this on the GOV.UK website.

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Are there any other issues I need to consider?

Trivial commutation is full of rules which can trip you up. Some further issues which you should consider are covered in the next few paragraphs.

Interaction with other tax matters, tax credits and state benefits

The issues to consider when taking a trivial commutation lump sum are the same as for pensions flexibility. See our pensions flexibility guide for information about possible impacts on tax credits, child benefit and other state benefits.

When to take a trivial commutation payment

It is possible to take a trivial commutation lump sum from age 55 onwards (unless you meet certain ill-health conditions, or have a protected pension age due to your occupation – in which case, you may be able to get the money earlier).

Delaying the decision to take a trivial commutation lump sum to a later tax year could produce a saving in taxes. For example, in the tax year in which you retire, you are likely to have higher taxable income and therefore potentially fall into a higher tax band, than you might in the tax year following retirement. If you require specialist tax advice and can afford to pay for help, you may need to find a Chartered Tax Adviser.

If you have a number of small pension policies it may be advantageous to cash them in over two tax years, but it is important to remember the 12-month rule. If they are ‘small pots’ of less than £10,000 each in value, you can take them in addition to the £30,000 trivial commutation limit – and there is no time limit on doing so.

Payments just outside the trivial commutation lump sum limits

Usually your pension provider will not make a payment which takes you over the limit. But be very careful, because if, as a result of receiving several trivial commutation payments, your total lump sum exceeds the £30,000 limit – and assuming none are additional ‘allowed’ payments – then all of the trivial commutation lump sum payments you receive may become subject to a penalty rate of taxation of 40% or even 55%. This is particularly important to be aware of when commuting several pensions on separate occasions within the 12 month commutation period.

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Examples

Two examples may help to illustrate the principles:

Kim

Kim, age 62, has pensions not yet in payment under three registered defined benefit pension schemes A, B and C, which are worth £3,000, £12,500 and £14,000 respectively. Kim is not in receipt of any pension in payment.

The rules of all three of her pension schemes allow the commutation of trivial pensions.

Kim wants to commute her benefits as soon as possible in the 2017 calendar year and in order to do this her pension benefits must be valued within a three month period ending on the date the first trivial commutation lump sum is paid.

Kim’s pension rights are valued on 5 May 2017 at £29,500. To be a valid valuation, the first trivial commutation lump sum payment must be paid before 5 August 2017, within three months of the valuation.

Kim does not have to take her benefits as a trivial commutation lump sum from each scheme. She may choose to take her benefits under one or two of the schemes and not the other(s). But it must be an all-or-nothing decision in relation to each of the schemes, that is all the arrangements within an individual scheme – A, B or C – must be paid as a trivial commutation lump sum, or none of them.

Kim decides to draw all her benefits under scheme B (£12,500) and C (£14,000) as trivial commutation lump sums. The benefits under scheme B are paid out as a trivial commutation lump sum on 2 June 2017.

The date this first payment is made will be the first day of the 12-month commutation period. Kim must draw any further trivial commutation lump from her remaining registered pension schemes before the end of the day on 1 June 2018.

Any payment from scheme C must therefore be paid by that date and must represent all her rights deriving from any number of policies under that scheme.

The benefits under scheme C are actually paid on 5 March 2018, within the commutation period. 

Kim decides to leave the benefits held under scheme A, although she could have chosen to cash that in under the additional ‘allowed’ payments rules if she wished. If she did want to later cash in scheme A, she might still be able to do so under those separate rules, as long as the value of that scheme remains within the £10,000 ‘small pots’ limit.

Mel

Mel, who is 58 in the tax year 2017/18, has defined benefit pensions not yet in payment from schemes X, Y and Z with capital values of £4,000, £12,100 and £13,000 respectively (£29,100 in total) on 5 April 2017.

She also receives a pension of £1,000 from scheme W, which started in the 2012/13 tax year. At the time the scheme pension started Mel was also paid a tax free lump sum of £2,400.

Her pension rights from scheme W are valued at £22,400 (20 times £1,000 plus £2,400).

This means Mel’s total pension rights are worth £51,500 (£29,100 and £22,400) on 5 April 2017 and this is much more than the commutation limit of £30,000. So none of Mel’s benefits under scheme Y or Z may be commuted and paid as a trivial commutation lump sum, nor can her pension in payment from Scheme W be commuted.

Mel should, however, be able to commute her pension under scheme X under the additional £10,000 ‘small pots’ limit.

Yanette

Yannet has a personal pension pot of £16,500 and a defined benefit pension which the scheme administrators have valued at £13,000.

Her total value in registered pension schemes is therefore £29,500. This means she can take a lump sum from the defined benefit scheme of its full value under the trivial commutation rules. She can also cash in her personal pension under the pensions flexibility rules, if she wants. She does not have to cash both in within 12 months, as her decision relating to the personal pension has no bearing on the trivial commutation rules. The only affect it has is to be included in the valuation of her total pensions for trivial commutation purposes to see whether she falls within the £30,000 limit.

Yannet will also need to bear in mind that she might pay less tax if she does not take all of her pensions out at once. The full value of the defined benefit scheme has to be taken at one time (as it is a condition of the trivial commutation rules that the payment ‘extinguishes’ the benefit in the scheme), but the personal pension may be taken in stages so that she achieves a better tax result.

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Where can I find more help?

This can be a complex area of tax law and practice. For help on the tax aspects of trivial commutation, including filling in forms, if you are aged 55 or over and cannot afford to pay for tax advice, you can contact Tax Help for Older People for assistance. There are contact details on their website.

For benefits issues, you might be able to get help from an advice agency such as your local Citizens Advice Bureau. Find further contact details on our ‘Getting help’ page.

For queries about the technical issues surrounding trivial commutation, for example, valuations of pension schemes, your first contact should be with your pension provider(s).

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