Lifetime Allowance Falls to £1m: Could you be caught?

Pension Lifetime Allowance (LTA) decreased to £1m on 6 April 2016. In combination with previous reductions, it has fallen almost by half from its 2012 high of £1.8m. High net worth professionals like solicitors, barristers and accountants often underestimate the risk of exceeding their LTA. That might become very costly in the future. Above LTA, pension income is subject to 25% tax and lump sum a whopping 55%.

Example
Consider George. He is an accountant and has his own accounting business. He is in his 40’s, approaching halftime of his career. His pension pot is worth about £400,000. George considers himself comfortable, but not particularly rich. He’s heard the news about the falling LTA, but £1m sounds like different world. He’s nowhere near a millionaire after all, so he doesn’t need to worry about LTA.

Truth is, if George continues to contribute to his pension plan at the same rate, or (more likely) increases his contributions a little bit in the later years of his career, he can easily get dangerously close to the £1m mark, or even exceed it. This does not mean that he should stop contributing, but the sooner he becomes aware of the issue and starts planning, the wider options he has.


What are the options for senior professionals at risk of exceeding the new LTA?

LTA Protection
First, if you are likely to exceed the new reduced LTA (£1m), or already have, you can apply for LTA Protection, which is a transitional scheme to protect taxpayers from the unexpected LTA reduction. Depending on your circumstances you have two main options:

  • Individual Protection for those with pension pots already worth over £1m. Your LTA will be set to the lower of 1) the current value of your pension 2) £1.25m (the old LTA).
  • Fixed Protection for those with pension pots below £1m at the moment, but likely to exceed it in the future. Your LTA will be $1.25m, but no further contributions are allowed.

Other conditions apply and many factors must be considered when deciding whether LTA Protection is worth it in your case. Also note that a similar LTA Protection scheme has been in place for the 2014 decrease in LTA (from £1.5m to £1.25) – you can still apply until 5 April 2017.

LTA Planning Options and Alternatives
If you have higher income and want to save more than the LTA allows, the first thing to look at is an ISA. It won’t help you reduce taxes now, because it’s always after-tax money coming in, but in retirement you’ll be able to draw from your ISA without having to pay any taxes – capital gains, interest and dividends are all tax-free within an ISA. There is no lifetime allowance on ISAs, only an annual allowance, currently at £15,240 and rising to £20,000 in April 2017. Furthermore, you don’t even have to wait for retirement – you can withdraw from your ISA at any time.

Another alternative is to invest in stocks, bonds or funds directly, outside a pension plan or ISA. Capital gains, interest and dividends are subject to tax in this case, but there are relatively generous annual allowances which you can take advantage of – the most important being the CGT allowance, currently at £11,100 (the first £11,100 of capital gains in a tax year is tax-free).

These two options alone provide a huge scope for tax-free investing when planned properly. Those on higher income may also want to consider more complex solutions, such as trusts, offshore pensions or offshore companies, although the use of these always depends on your unique circumstances and qualified advice is absolutely essential – otherwise you could do more harm than good.

Conclusion
LTA planning must be taken seriously even when it seems too distant to worry about at the moment. Pensions are the cornerstone of retirement planning, but not the only tool available. With careful planning, a combination of different investment vehicles and tax wrappers is often the most efficient, especially for higher net worth professionals.

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