Q: My company froze our pensions last year. I am 53. Can I take the money out and invest it myself? – Tim Shields, New York
A: You’re in the same boat as many private sector workers today. Hundreds of companies have frozen their pensions in the past decade in order to shed the cost of providing guaranteed lifetime income to retirees. The trend accelerated after the recession—more than 40% of the Fortune 1000 companies now have frozen pensions, according to one study.
Your employer can’t take away the benefits you’ve earned. But if you’re currently covered by a pension, also known as a defined benefit plan, your pension benefit will no longer increase. This trend leaves older workers like you vulnerable, especially if you have long tenure, says Bonnie Kirchner, a certified financial planner and president of Sea Change Financial Education. That’s because pensions are back-loaded, reaching their peak value in your last years before retirement. You’re losing what would have been a large income stream in retirement, so you'll need to figure out different saving and investing strategies.
Whether you can take the money out and invest it yourself depends on your plan’s rules, says Kirchner, who also wrote Who Can You Trust With Your Money? You should contact your human resources department to find out the specifics.
Chances are, your employer will want you to take that pension money as a lump sum, says Kirchner. Many pensions are underfunded, and companies must make up any underfunded liabilities with additional contributions to their plans. “Your corporation may be very happy to get rid of that liability from their balance sheet,” says Kirchner.
In fact, more companies are doing so. In a move known as “de-risking," companies are offering settlement payouts to employees, thereby moving the pension obligation off their books. Three out of four employers with pension plans said they are—or are in the process of—unloading pensions obligations, according to a report by Towers Watson and Institutional Investors Forum.
To do so, your company may offer to pay you a lump sum in place of a monthly pension payment, or it may replace your pension by buying an equivalent annuity from an insurance company. Motorola recently did both, buying annuities from Prudential Insurance to cover its current pensions and offering lump sum buyouts to plan participants. General Motors and Verizon replaced their pension obligations with annuities in 2012.
For most people, taking an annuity that guarantees an income stream for life is a far better option than a lump sum payout. “It protects you against running out of money,” says Kirchner. An exception might be if you are in poor health and need to tap those assets sooner. (If you do take a lump sum, be sure to roll it over into an IRA—otherwise you could incur penalties and income taxes.)
Granted, investing a lump sum does offer the potential for higher returns, so it may be a better fit for those who want to manage their own money. Still, few investors are capable of outperforming the market, as studies have repeatedly shown. And today a guaranteed stream of income is something that is highly sought after by retirees, says Kirchner, so think twice about rejecting an annuity.
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