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Generally, the provisions in a retirement plan document determine the asset distribution options available to beneficiaries. Pension death benefits vary depending on the type of pension you have.

Key Takeaways

  • Pension plans are retirement plans that are known as defined-benefit plans where the employer, not the employee, is responsible for making contributions.
  • Pension plans are expected to pay out a set amount of income to retirees, regardless of the performance of the investment portfolio.
  • Defined contribution plans, such as 401(k)s can be considered pension plans, as they pay out during retirement as well, but they operate differently.
  • The provisions of a retirement plan determine how assets can be distributed to beneficiaries. Pension death benefits vary depending on the type of pension you have.
  • Typically, only the spouse of the pension can receive the benefits upon the account holder’s death.

What Is a Pension?

Pension plans are a type of retirement plan that requires an employer to make contributions to a pool of funds set aside for a worker’s future benefit. The pool of funds is invested on the employee’s behalf, and the earnings on the investments generate income for the worker upon retirement. Pension plan options typically offer a lump-sum distribution or payments in the form of an annuity.

Types of Pensions

There are two main types of pension plans: defined-benefit and defined contribution.

  • A defined-benefit plan is what people normally think of as a “pension.” It is an employer-sponsored retirement plan in which employee benefits are computed using a formula that considers several factors, such as length of employment and salary history. It is called “defined benefit” because employees and employers know the formula for calculating retirement benefits ahead of time, and they use it to set the benefit paid out. The employer typically funds the plan by contributing a regular amount, usually a percentage of the employee’s pay, into a tax-deferred account. Depending on the plan, employees may also make contributions.
  • A defined contribution plan is a retirement plan that’s typically tax-deferred, like a 401(k) or a 403(b), in which employees contribute a fixed amount or a percentage of their paychecks to an account that is intended to fund their retirements. The sponsor company will, at times, match a portion of employee contributions as an added benefit. These plans place restrictions that control when and how each employee can withdraw from these accounts without penalties. Generally, “pension” refers to a defined-benefit plan, not a defined contribution plan.

Can a Beneficiary Receive Pension Plan Benefits?

It depends on the plan options originally selected by the member, as well as your relationship with that member. Typically, pension plans allow for only the member—or the member and their surviving spouse—to receive benefit payments; however, in limited instances, some may allow for a non-spouse beneficiary, such as a child.

According to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) “protects surviving spouses of deceased participants who had earned a vested pension benefit before their death.

The nature of the protection depends on the type of plan and whether the participant dies before or after payment of the pension benefit is scheduled to begin, otherwise known as the annuity starting date.

The summary plan description will tell you the type of plan involved and whether survivor annuities or other death benefits are provided under the plan.

“When a plan participant dies, the surviving spouse should contact the deceased spouse’s employer or the plan’s administrator to make a claim for any available benefits. The plan will likely request a copy of the death certificate. Depending upon the type of plan, and whether the participant died before or after retirement payments had started, the plan will notify the surviving spouse as to:

  • the amount and form of benefits (in other words, lump sum or installment payments under an annuity);
  • whether death benefit payments from the plan may be rolled over into another retirement plan; and
  • if a rollover is possible, the method and time period in which the rollover must be made.”

If the plan member is married with a joint-life payout option, the default beneficiary is automatically the member’s spouse unless the spouse waives that option. The spouse would need to certify in writing via a spousal consent or spousal waiver form that they are choosing not to receive survivor benefits.

It may need to be notarized. If done properly, this allows the member to designate another beneficiary, such as a child. If the plan member is not married, they may designate another beneficiary.

Types of Survivor Annuity Options

Defined-Benefit Pension

With a defined-benefit plan, the main factor to consider is whether the member was retired at their death. If the member had not retired prior to death, the plan may pay out a lump sum to the designated beneficiary.

This is typically worth a certain multiple of the member’s salary because defined-benefit plans were designed to be linked to the length of employment and salary history.

If the member had already retired, the pension payments may either end at the member’s death (referred to as a single-life pension) or they may continue to pay benefits to a beneficiary in a reduced amount (referred to as a joint-life or survivor pension).

Over time, defined contribution plans became more popular than defined-benefit plans, which were the traditional means of retirement planning.

If the member selected a single-life pension, their monthly payments would be higher than if they selected a joint-life pension.

Because the employer expects to have to pay benefits over a longer period of time, the joint-life option often comes with reduced payments to both the member during their life and the surviving beneficiary.

There may be other hybrid options available as well that continue to pay higher payments to the member until their death (although not as high as the single-life option), with a drastically reduced payment to the surviving beneficiary.

Defined Contribution Pension

With a defined contribution plan, such as a 401(k), the beneficiary can access the remaining funds in the retirement account via a gradual drawdown, a lump sum payment, or through the purchase of an annuity.

As mentioned above, if a married plan member wishes to designate a beneficiary other than the member’s spouse, the spouse must waive rights to the retirement benefits.

Period Certain Annuity

A period certain annuity option allows the customer to choose how long to receive payments. This method allows beneficiaries to later receive the benefit if the period has not expired at the date of the member’s death.

This is unlike the more conventional single-life annuity option, in which the annuitant receives an income payment for the rest of their life, regardless of how long their retirement lasts.

Advisor Insight

Gage DeYoung, CFP®
Prudent Wealthcare LLC, Aurora, CO

Assuming your parent elected a period certain pension option for payment at retirement and named you as beneficiaries, you and your siblings would be entitled to the continuing payments until the period expires.

For example, if a parent elected a 20-year period certain pension option and passed away after 10 years from the date the pension started paying, his beneficiaries would be entitled to split the monthly payment for the next 10 years.

It will be important to find out what election was made by your parent prior to the payment start date. Many corporate pensions only offer single-life or joint-life payment options.

If that’s the case, the payments, unfortunately, stop at the passing of the original payee—or the passing of the original payee and their spouse, with a joint-life option.

How Do Inheritance Pensions Work With Taxes?

Inherited pension benefits are most often not included in an estate and, therefore, are not eligible for inheritance tax when the value of your estate is determined.

How Is a Pension Paid Out After Death?

If you die before all of the assets in your pension have been paid out, then the remainder will be paid out to your beneficiaries. The payout can be either as a lump sum or a regulated fixed payment.

Who Receives a Deceased’s Pension?

Who gets a deceased’s pension is determined by the pension contract and the details in each specific contract. Some pension contracts may stipulate that the pension ceases when the participant passes while others may allow for the pension to be distributed to a surviving spouse or dependent, such as a child.

The Bottom Line

Whether you can inherit pension benefit payments from a parent depends highly on the specific plan options originally selected by your parent. The tax treatments and methods available to you to access these funds vary based on those selections, as well.

To be sure of the options available to you, check with your parent’s employer or the administrator of your parent’s defined-benefit plan. As always, speak to a tax professional to fully understand the tax consequences of any inherited pension benefits.

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