What Happens to My Pension if My Company Goes Bankrupt?
If you’re lucky enough to have a pension through your employer, you’re probably wondering what effect this significant economic downturn will have on your benefit. What happens if your employer goes bankrupt? What does it mean if they freeze your pension? Can your pension benefit just disappear? And where do you go if your employer does go out of business and how can you receive what you’re entitled to?
These are important questions, and if you’ve accumulated a decent pension benefit, you certainly want to be able to get what is owed to you, and understand what companies can and can’t do.
Defined Contribution vs. Defined Benefit
If you take part in a 401(k), 403(b), 457, or other similar employer-sponsored plan, then you’re using a defined contribution plan. This just means that you (and/or your employer through a match or profit sharing) contribute a specific amount of money into the plan. The amount of the benefit is not defined as the investment choices you make and amount you contribute will ultimately dictate how much you receive in retirement.
Pensions are defined benefit plans. These types of plans pay out a defined benefit that is based on a calculation. The calculations usually takes into account length of service, pay, and your age. The benefit that is defined is paid out to you, and it doesn’t depend on how much money you or your employer puts into it or market conditions.
Defined Benefit Plans and Investments
Even pension plans invest in the stock market, and since you don’t make the investment choices, there isn’t much you can do. Your benefit will be determined by the calculation that was established by the plan. So, if the market takes a big hit like it has recently, your pension benefit doesn’t decrease like the value of your 401(k) did.
But, a shortfall in funds has to come from somewhere. Since pensions are funded by the company, a shortage of funds to pay out the benefits could eventually affect you. When a company is forced to inject millions or billions of dollars into a pension plan, it can put strain on an already struggling company. A less profitable company can turn to layoffs, reducing workforce, closing plants, or a number of cost-cutting measures.
In addition, the company may decide to freeze their pension plan. When this happens, any additional service you have with the company wouldn’t be added to increase your pension benefit. You’re still entitled to any benefits you obtained previously, but additional time won’t mean additional benefits. A pension freeze may be temporary or permanent. While it isn’t an ideal situation to be in, at least you will get what you earned prior to the freeze.
If Your Company Goes Bankrupt
Most people assume that if their employer goes out of business, it takes their pension plan with it. In most cases, this is not true. Are you familiar with FDIC insurance limits for bank deposits and SIPC insurance for investment accounts? Both the FDIC and SIPC insures your money up to a certain amount in the event the company that holds these accounts goes under. Thankfully, pension plans have similar protection.
The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, or PBGC is responsible for insuring your pension benefits. In most cases, your pension benefit would be insured up to certain limits. For 2009, a 65 year old has a maximum insured benefit of $54,000 annually. So, as long as your pension benefit is equal to, or less than this limit, you’d still have your full pension benefit even if your company goes under or the pension plan terminates.
Just like banks pay premiums to obtain FDIC coverage, pension plans also pay premiums to the PBGC, and in the event of a failure, the PBGC would take over the plan and administer it while paying out insured amounts. Some types of benefits are not guaranteed. These include health and welfare benefits, severance benefits, lump-sum death benefits and disability benefits when death or disability occurs after plan termination.
Author: Jeremy Vohwinkle
My name is Jeremy Vohwinkle, and I’ve spent a number of years working in the finance industry providing financial advice to regular investors and those participating in employer-sponsored retirement plans.