How does tax relief on pension contributions work?
To encourage people to save for their retirement, the government will pay tax relief on money you pay into a UK pension. This is equivalent to the level of income tax you pay and effectively means you make your contributions from pre-taxed income.
So, if a basic-rate taxpayer pays in £80, the government will top-up that contribution to £100 thanks to tax relief at 20%. A higher rate taxpayer gets tax relief at 40% so would only have to pay £60 to invest £100, while an additional rate taxpayer with tax relief at 45% would pay just £55.
If you are a member of a workplace scheme your employer will deduct your pension contributions from your salary before tax has been paid, meaning you only pay tax on the remainder. This means you get the full benefit of tax relief at whatever rate of income tax you pay and need to take no further action.
The situation is different for personal pensions as your contributions will be paid from your own taxed income. As a result your pension provider will claim 20% tax relief back from the taxman on your behalf. Higher rate taxpayers can claim a further 20% back, either through their tax return or by writing to or phoning HMRC. Additional rate taxpayers can claim a further 25% but this does need to be done through a tax return.
Are there any other tax benefits to saving in a pension?
On top of tax relief on contributions, money saved in a pension accrues tax-free. When you retire you can take up to 25% of your fund as a tax-free cash lump sum to spend or invest as you choose.
You will have to pay income tax on the income the remainder generates, unless of course it does not exceed your personal allowance. In 2020/21, the personal allowance is £12,500. If you die before the age of 75 your pension can be passed on to the beneficiary of your choice tax free. If you die after age 75 it will only be subject to income tax at the recipient’s marginal rate. Pension money is outside of your estate too which means it should never be subject to inheritance tax.
How much can I pay into a pension?
Each year you can contribute an amount equal to 100% of your earnings into as many pensions as you like and still get tax relief. However this is subject to an annual allowance which has, somewhat controversially, been slashed in recent years.
In April 2011 the amount you can pay into a pension was reduced from £255,000 a year to £50,000 and at the start of the 2014/15 tax year it fell again to £40,000 where it stands today.
The allowance applies until you start accessing your pension. Once you have started taking benefits from your pension a new lower allowance called the money purchase annual allowance kicks in – this limits contributions to just £4,000 a year. This could be a vital consideration for savers to bear in bind if they plan to top up their pension with bonuses or inheritances towards the end of their careers. An exception applies if you are only cashing in a pension worth less than £10,000.
If you pay in more than the annual allowance you will be liable for a tax charge on the excess. However, the good news is that you can carry forward any unused allowance from the last three tax years to the current tax year, meaning you may be able to avoid the charge.
Non-taxpayers can pay into a pension and still benefit from tax relief at the basic rate (20%). You can pay in a maximum of £2,880 which then gets topped up to £3,600. You can also set up a scheme for a non-taxpayer and pay into it on their behalf (this might be a spouse or civil partner or a child or grandchild) and get tax relief at this rate.
Start a pension for your child
In addition to the annual allowance, which governs how much you can pay in each year, there is also a lifetime allowance. If the total value of your pensions exceeds this limit a tax charge will apply.
Again this allowance has been reducing over the years. In 2011 it stood at £1.8 million but fell to £1.5 million at the start of the 2012 tax year before falling again to £1.25 million at the start of the 2014 tax year. In April 2016 it fell to £1 million. This allowance now increases with inflation and in the year 2020/21 stands at £1,073,100.
Although the reductions have been made to target the wealthiest of individuals, experts have expressed concern that its not just extreme earners that will be caught out. Long-serving members of final salary schemes could be particularly vulnerable, even if they are only on a middle income.
What happens to my pensions when I retire?
You can access your pensions any time from the age of 55. Traditionally pensions have been regarded as very inflexible savings vehicles, with strict rules governing what you do with the money you saved, however following the introduction of the pension freedoms in April 2015 savers can do what they like with their money. This is a massive change.
If you want the certainty of a fixed income you will still be able to purchase an annuity, or if you are happy to accept the risk of leaving your money invested you can enter into an income drawdown agreement. Here you keep your money in your pension but start taking an income from it. Alternatively you can cash in your pension and spend – or invest – the money as you choose.
What will you do with your pension?
Prior to these changes savers were essentially forced into buying poor value annuities that might only pay out a few pounds a week.
Up to 25% of any pension you cash in can be taken as a tax-free lump sum, however the remainder will be worked into your income for that year and you will be taxed at your marginal rate. So you will need to be mindful that by cashing in your pension you may put yourself into a higher tax bracket.
If you want to take your tax-free cash in one go you will then you will need to move the rest of your pension into a flexible drawdown plan.