Recent years have seen some significant changes to the tax treatment and rules governing pensions and death benefits. Many of these changes have been quite favourable, bringing new freedoms and tax saving opportunities. However, these freedoms go hand in hand with responsibilities and risks. We will look at the most important challenges and ways to ensure your investments achieve the best possible performance, serve your income needs and at the same time remain tax efficient – both in retirement and when your wealth eventually passes to your heirs.
The Government has recently changed financial and tax legislation in many areas, but there are two things which are particularly important when it comes to retirement and inheritance tax planning.
Firstly, you now have greater freedom to decide how to use your pension pot when you retire. You can take the entire pension pot as lump sum if you wish (25% is tax-free, the rest is taxed at your marginal rate), you can take a series of lump sums throughout your retirement, you can buy an annuity or get one of the increasingly popular flexible access drawdown plans.
Secondly, you now have complete freedom over your death benefit nominations. Before the reform, which came into effect in April 2015, you could only nominate your dependants (typically your spouse and children under 23). Now you can nominate virtually anyone you wish, such as your grandchildren, siblings, more distant relatives, or even people outside your family. Furthermore, the taxation of death benefits has become more favourable. If you die before 75, death benefits are tax-free (lump sum or income, paid from crystallised or uncrystallised funds). If you die after 75, death benefit income is taxed at marginal rate of the beneficiary (lump sum is subject to 45% tax, but that may also change in the near future). The reform has turned pensions and death benefits into a powerful inheritance tax planning tool.
While the above is all good news, there are some very important restrictions and things to watch out for. Neglecting them can have costly consequences. For instance, the Lifetime Allowance not only still applies, but has been significantly reduced in the recent years (it is only £1m now). Besides the annual pension contribution allowance it is one of the things that require careful planning long before you retire. In retirement, pension income is typically subject to income tax, which must be considered when deciding about the size and timing of withdrawals, particularly if you have other sources of income.
Asset allocation and investment management is another challenge. Maintaining a good investment return with reasonable risk is increasingly difficult in the world of record low interest rates. It is tempting to completely avoid low-yield bonds and other conservative investments in favour of stocks, but such strategy could leave you exposed to unacceptably high levels of risk, particularly in the last years before your retirement. A balanced portfolio of stocks and bonds is often the best compromise, but asset allocation should not be constant in time – it should be regularly reviewed and should reflect your changing time horizon and other circumstances.
Death benefit nominations are another area where changes in financial and life circumstances may require reviews and adjustments, particularly after the age of 75, when potential death benefits are no longer tax-free. For example, if your children are higher rate taxpayers, you may want to change the nominations in favour of your grandchildren, who may be able to draw the income at zero or very low tax rate, allowing you to pass wealth to future generations in a tax-efficient way. If you have other sources of income and are a higher rate taxpayer yourself, you may even choose to not draw from your pension at all and keep it invested to minimise total inheritance tax.
The above are just some of the many things to consider. Depending on your particular situation, there might be tax saving opportunities which you may not be aware of. Conversely, ignorance of little details in the legislation or mismanagement of your investments may lead to substantial losses or tax liabilities. The new freedoms (and related challenges) make qualified retirement planning advice as important as ever before.