Taking control of your pension

This is the first year that it’s become truly possible to take control of your own pension. Up to now, most people with money-purchase (or defined contribution) pensions had to hand over their money to an insurance company and buy an annuity with it. Thankfully, that practice is ended and we get to keep the cash.

What’s stopping a lot of people is simply lack of understanding of what a pension is. In fact, it’s really quite simple: it’s a savings account that you use to build up a sum of money that will eventually provide enough income to support you in your later life. Despite all the changes, it remains a limited access account. Once you put the money in, you can’t take it out again until you’re at least 55. However, when you put the money in, you get a tax rebate so that, for a basic rate tax payer, every £1000 you put in becomes £1250 in the pension. Anything that you withdraw from it is subject to income tax but with an allowance that means that the first 25% you take out is not taxed, whether you take this out as a single large lump sum (as historically people did) or as a series of smaller amounts (in which case 25% of each withdrawal is tax free).

If you’ve had a few jobs over the years, chances are that you’ll have a small pension account for each one. Small pension accounts are generally bad news as the charges, particularly on older accounts, can be rather high. If this sounds like you, it’s best to investigate the possibility of combining the various accounts which will reduce the charges and let you take control of your pension.

Are you up to taking control of it though? The sums involved in pensions can be quite substantial and the sheer size of the sums can put people off managing the money themselves. If you’re comfortable with the amount involved, there are a range of Self-Invested Personal Pensions (SIPPs) around that will let you do that but equally you can choose an investment manager to look after the account for you.

Either way, you need to establish what your objectives are and what your attitude to risk is as that will determine just how the pension account is invested.

As with everything in pensions, the timescale for transfers can be surprisingly long. To move a company pension to a private one (which will normally require you to take professional advice) can take four months or more but even a simple transfer is likely to take a month or two. Mind you, that does have the advantage that it gives you a lot of time to think about how the fund will be invested which is no bad thing.

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