What Happens to Your Pension When You Leave a Company

How to Move Your Defined Benefit Pension Plan if You Leave a Job

This illustration includes pension options when you leave a job including "Choose to take the money as a lump sum now," "Take the promise of regular payments in the future (an annuity)," and "May be possible to get a combination of both."

Maritsa Patrinos © The Balance

Breaking ties with an old job is often enjoyable, sometimes bittersweet, and other times just plain bitter. If you have a defined benefit pension, breaking ties can also be complicated. What happens to your pension plan when you leave a company before you're ready to retire? Will you get the money, and what should you do with it? Are there tax consequences you need to consider?

There was a time when some folks wouldn’t consider leaving a job with a defined benefit pension, but people change jobs much more frequently than in the past, and the types of benefits employers provide have changed. If a better offer comes along before retirement, it’s up to you to decide what to do with the pension you have accumulated.

What’s a Defined Benefit Pension?

A defined benefit pension is what most people think of as the traditional, old-school pension that your father or grandfather had. You know, the type that guarantees workers who stay with a company a lifetime income stream during retirement.

Defined benefit pensions are not as common these days, they have been replaced by defined contribution plans, like 401(k)s, which put much of the savings responsibility on the employee and do not come with any guarantees of a set amount of retirement income.

Are you Vested?

According to the Department of Labor, in a defined benefit plan, an employer can require that employees have 5 years of service in order to become 100 percent vested in the employer funded benefits. Employers also can choose a graduated vesting schedule, which requires an employee to work 7 years in order to be 100 percent vested, but provides at least 20 percent vesting after 3 years, 40 percent after 4 years, 60 percent after 5 years, and 80 percent after 6 years of service. Plans may provide a different schedule as long as it is more generous than these vesting schedules. You are only entitled to the vested portion of your pension at the time you leave your employer

Pension Options When You Leave a Job

Typically, when you leave a job with a defined benefit pension, you have a few options. You can choose to take the money as a lump sum now, or take the promise of regular payments in the future, also known as an annuity. You may even be able to get a combination of both.

What you do with the money in your pension may depend on your age and years to retirement. If you are young and have a relatively small amount of money at stake, a lump sum may be the easiest choice.

Keep in mind that most annuity payments are fixed and do not keep up with inflation. Today’s small annuity will look even smaller in the future.

In 30 to 40 years, the buying power of your pension could be greatly reduced. Invest it yourself, perhaps with the help of an accredited financial advisor, and you may be able to get a better long-term return on your money. However, “know thyself”, if you are a disciplined investor, managing your pension resources will make more sense than if you are prone to fear based reactions to market moves.

On the other hand, if you are closer to retirement and looking for guaranteed income, the annuity may be a more attractive option. You don’t have to worry about investing the money yourself in the precarious pre-retirement years.

You may also have a better sense of the company’s near-term health and ability to meet its pension promises, (pensions are insured by the government through the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, but when companies go under, employees and former employees usually don’t get everything they had been promised). Sometimes, companies will offer extra benefits to encourage older employees to stay in their plan. If your research indicates that your plan is underfunded or is likely to be so in the future, then you might be more likely to select a lump sum.

What to Do With a Lump Sum Pension Payment

If you do take the lump sum, consider transferring the money directly from your pension into a rollover Individual Retirement Account (IRA) to keep it from being taxed. If your company writes you a check, you have 60 days to move the money into a tax-favored account before the money is taxed.

Unless you really need the funds, it’s best to avoid spending the lump sum before retirement. Not only are you missing out on long-term investment growth, but you will also have to pay taxes on the cash plus a 10 percent early withdrawal penalty. If you have significant assets in your plan, you could face a significant tax bill.

Within a rollover IRA, the funds can be invested in any way you choose. You could even purchase an annuity within the IRA to capture some of that guaranteed income on your own.

Some retirement plan administrators, including Vanguard and Fidelity Investments, offer advice and online tools to help employees decide between an annuity and a lump sum. It’s worth playing around with a few of them before making a decision. You can also contact plan administrators for advice based on your specific circumstances and goals.

The information contained in this article is not legal advice and is not a substitute for such advice. State and federal laws change frequently, and the information in this article may not reflect your own state’s laws or the most recent changes to the law.