Retirement: Lifetime Payments or Lump Sum?

According to the U.S. Labor Department, in 1975 there were more than 103,000 employee pension plans in place as retirement income for Americans. By 2017, that number had dropped to about 46,700. Further, the number of private pension plans — which employers fund on behalf of workers — has also dwindled as companies have shifted the burden of retirement savings to their employees through 401(k) plans or other defined-contribution plans. 

As a result of those changing realities, retiring workers now face their retirement decisions of lump sum or lifetime pension payments with concerns over whether their employers will be willing and/or able to meet the long-term commitments of their plans.

Most retirees like the idea of guaranteed income for the rest of their lives, which makes choosing continuing payments more appealing. However, today’s financial reality is that the stability of pension payments depend on the solvency of the sponsor. And while the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) would step in if a company could not meet its obligations, it may pay only a certain portion of an employee’s promised benefits. 

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The PBGC’s multi-employer insurance program currently coversthe pensions of 10.8 million Americans. The corporation also pays monthly retirement benefits, up to legal limits, to about one million retirees whose plans ended or failed. Concerningly, the agency’s most recent annual report shows that it is currently stretched to its limits, with forecasts of insolvency by the fiscal year 2025. 

So what is the best choice to make? Below are some facts that may help in your decision-making process.

  • For those eyeing a lump sum due to fear of their employer going under or otherwise struggling to meet their pension obligations, it’s important to be aware of the fact that the lump sum amount offered is generally lower in comparison to the amount promised over time. That being said, because interest rates have generally remained low, recent lump sum offers have been bigger than if rates were high. . 
  • In choosing to remain in the pension plan instead over a lump sum, the amount received may be fixed-for-life as pensions typically don’t have a cost-of-living adjustment.
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  • Although some pensions offer spousal benefits (i.e., upon death, the husband or wife continues to receive a portion of the lifetime payments) there is nothing left for heirs. In contrast, in taking a lump sum, upon death there may be money that could be left to non-spousal heirs. 
  • Choosing a lump sum and not rolling it into an individual retirement account or other qualified option will result in taxes on the distribution. Alternatively rolling the money to an IRA, will require decisions on the best ways to invest the assets to meet retirement income needs
  • An alternative option is to purchase an annuity, which would provide guaranteed income for either a set number of years or for the remainder of the investor’s life, depending on the type. However, it’s significant to keep in mind that to help meet those payout obligations, insurance companies invest in stocks, which means your investment is one step removed from market investments. Additionally, there is always the risk of the insurance company going belly up. 

At the end of the day, any decision on retirement should be made in the context of the retiree’s financial plan and the long-term viability of all the companies involved.

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