Your Guaranteed Pension
Following are answers to questions frequently asked by workers, retirees, and their beneficiaries about PBGC and its benefit guarantees. If you do not find the answer to your particular question, please contact our customer service representatives for assistance at 1-800-400-7242. For TTY/ASCII users, call the Federal relay service toll-free at 1-800-877-8339 and ask to be connected to 1-800-400-7242.
A. PBGC is a federal agency created by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) to protect pension benefits in private defined benefit plans — the kind that typically pay a set monthly amount at retirement. If your plan is insured by PBGC and it ends without sufficient money to pay all benefits (this is called “plan termination”) PBGC’s insurance program will pay you the benefit provided by your pension plan up to the limits set by law.
Our financing comes from insurance premiums paid by companies whose plans we protect, from our investments, from the assets of pension plans that we take over as trustee, and from recoveries from the companies formerly responsible for the plans, but not from taxes. Your insured plan remains insured even if your employer fails to pay the required premiums.
A. PBGC insures defined benefit plans offered by private-sector employers (but there are some defined benefit plans that we do not insure — see next question). Most promise to pay a specified benefit, usually a monthly amount, at retirement. Others, including cash-balance plans, may state the promised benefit as a single value.
PBGC does not insure defined contribution plans, which are retirement plans that do not promise specific benefit amounts at retirement, such as profit-sharing or 401(k) plans.
This booklet covers only single-employer plans, which are normally sponsored by an individual company for the benefit of its workers.
Another PBGC program insures multiemployer plans covering unionized workers of non-related employers in the same industry, such as trucking or construction.
A. The easiest way is to ask your employer or plan administrator for a copy of the “Summary Plan Description,” or SPD. The SPD will state whether your plan is covered by the PBGC program. Although we insure most defined benefit plans, some are not covered.
PBGC usually does not insure plans offered by:
- federal, state, or local governments,
- church groups, or
- "professional service employers" (such as doctors and lawyers) with fewer than 26 active employees enrolled in the plan (now and at all times in the past).
PBGC maintains a list of insured single-employer pension plans at http://search.pbgc.gov/single-employer/. While the list is not all-inclusive, it does include most single-employer plans that are insured by PBGC.
A. There are two ways an employer can terminate its pension plan.
The employer can end the plan in a standard termination but only after showing PBGC that the plan has enough money to pay all benefits owed to participants. Your plan must either:
- purchase from an insurance company an annuity that will provide you with lifetime benefits when you retire. Before purchasing your annuity, your plan administrator must give you an advance notice that identifies the insurance company or companies that your employer may select to provide the annuity. Or,
- issue a lump-sum payment that covers your entire benefit, if your plan allows.
PBGC’s guarantee ends when your employer purchases your annuity or gives you the lump-sum payment.
If the plan does not have enough money to pay all pension benefits owed to participants and the employer is in financial distress, the employer may apply for a distress termination. PBGC cannot grant the application, however, unless the employer proves to us or to a bankruptcy court that the employer cannot remain in business unless the plan is terminated. If the application is granted, we normally will take over as trustee of the plan and pay plan benefits, up to the legal limits.
A. Under the law, PBGC may take action on its own to end a pension plan if termination is needed to protect the interests of plan participants or of the PBGC insurance program. For example, PBGC will end a plan if it will be unable to pay benefits when due.
A. Your plan administrator must give you an annual written notice about the plan’s funded status. You also have a legal right to obtain funding information by requesting the information in writing from your plan administrator.
A. If your employer wants to end the plan, your plan administrator must notify you of this in writing. You must get this notice, called the Notice of Intent to Terminate, at least 60 days before the proposed termination date. If PBGC is terminating the plan, we notify the plan administrator and often publish a newspaper notice.
A. In a standard termination, your plan administrator must send you a second letter describing the benefits you will receive, called the Notice of Plan Benefits. Generally this notice must be sent no later than six months after the date proposed for your plan’s termination.
In a distress termination or a termination initiated by PBGC, our communication with you begins when we take over as trustee of your plan. Initially we will give you general information about the pension insurance program and our guarantees. We will be able to provide more specific information about your benefits after we have had an opportunity to review the plan’s records, assets, benefit liabilities, and your participation in the plan.
A. No. You cannot earn any additional pension benefits under your plan after it terminates.
A. PBGC reviews your plan’s records to determine the benefits each person will receive. The amount we pay is subject to limits set by law.
If you are already receiving a pension, we will continue paying you without interruption during our review. These payments are an estimate of the benefits that PBGC can pay under the insurance program. We will pay the benefits in the annuity form you chose at retirement, but they may be less than you were receiving from your plan.
If you have not yet retired, we will pay you an estimated benefit when you become eligible and apply to PBGC to begin payments. About four months before you are ready for your benefits to begin, contact us by calling the Customer Contact Center toll-free at 1-800-400-7242.
We deposit most benefits into participants’ accounts electronically, the safest, most secure, and simplest method.
A. After we have completed our review of all plan data and records, we will notify you in writing of your PBGC benefit and your right to appeal our determination. If you are receiving an estimated benefit, the letter will inform you whether your future payments will change and, if so, how much higher or lower they will be than the amount you are currently receiving.
A. If your estimated benefits have been lower than the amount that PBGC ultimately determines you should be receiving, we will make up the difference in a single payment with interest when we have completed our review of your plan.
If your estimated benefits have been higher than the amount you should be receiving, we will correct your future monthly payments to the final amount as calculated by PBGC. Typically, payments will be further reduced by no more than 10 percent each month to account for the higher payments already received.
A. PBGC guarantees “basic pension benefits” as provided by your pension plan, subject to legal limits. These benefits include:
- pension benefits at normal retirement age,
- most early retirement benefits,
- disability benefits, and
- annuity benefits for survivors of plan participants.
The guarantee applies only to benefits earned before the plan terminates; however, if the plan terminates while your employer is in bankruptcy, the guarantee may be limited to benefits earned before the bankruptcy. Additional limitations may apply to certain airline industry plans.
The pension benefit PBGC pays depends on:
- provisions of your plan,
- legal limits,
- the form of your benefit, and
- your age.
It may also depend on plan assets and on how much PBGC recovers from employers for plan underfunding.
We do not guarantee health and welfare benefits, severance and vacation pay, life insurance, lump-sum death benefits, certain other death benefits, and other non-pension benefits. PBGC benefits are not increased for cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs).
A. PBGC’s maximum benefit guarantee is set each year under ERISA. The maximum guarantee applicable to a plan is fixed as of that plan’s termination date except for cases where termination occurs during a plan sponsor’s bankruptcy, in which case the maximum guarantee may be fixed as of the date the sponsor entered bankruptcy. An earlier date also may apply to certain airline industry plans.
For 2014 the maximum guaranteed amount is $4,943.18 per month ($59,318.16 per year) for workers who begin receiving payments from PBGC at age 65. The maximum guarantee is lower if you begin receiving payments from PBGC before age 65 or if your pension includes benefits for a surviving spouse or other beneficiary. The maximum guarantee is higher if you are over age 65 when you begin receiving benefits from PBGC.
The table at the end of this booklet shows PBGC’s maximum guarantee at various ages. For certain disability benefits, special rules apply (see the following question). Other guarantee limitations that may apply are described in the questions and answers that follow.
A. For 2014 the maximum guarantee for a disabled participant who begins receiving benefits from PBGC at age 65 is $4,943.18 per month ($59,318.16 per year). But unlike the maximum guaranteed benefit for non-disabled participants, that amount is not reduced just because payments begin before age 65, if:
- Your disability dates from before your plan’s termination date (or the plan sponsor's bankruptcy date, as applicable); and
- Your disability meets both your plan’s disability requirements and those of the Social Security Administration; and
- You remain disabled until age 65.
As long as you were disabled before the applicable date, you may still obtain the SSA disability certification after that date. PBGC may require proof that you are still disabled.
Other adjustments to the maximum guarantee are the same as for non-disabled workers: the maximum is increased if you begin receiving payments from PBGC after age 65 and it is reduced if your pension includes benefits for a surviving spouse or other beneficiary.
- If your plan was created or amended to increase benefits within five years before the plan’s termination date, your benefit may not be fully guaranteed. PBGC guarantees up to the larger of 20% of the benefit increase or $20 per month for each full year the benefit increase was in effect. If you own more than 50% of the business, stricter limits apply.
- If you became eligible for additional benefits as a result of an event such as the shutdown of a facility that occurred after July 26, 2005, and less than five years before your plan’s termination date, the increase is not fully guaranteed.
- Additional limits may apply if the plan terminated while your employer was in a bankruptcy proceeding, and for certain airline industry plans.
- If your plan provides supplemental benefits, such as temporary payments, they may not be fully guaranteed. Generally, PBGC does not guarantee any monthly pension amount that is greater than the monthly benefit your plan would have provided if you had retired at your normal retirement age.
A. Yes. PBGC will pay benefits to your surviving beneficiary if you elected a benefit form that provides survivor benefits, whether you retired before or after your plan terminated.
- If you chose an annuity that pays benefits for the life of your beneficiary (such as a joint-and-survivor annuity), we will pay these benefits only to the beneficiary you chose when you retired. In such a case, if you remarry after you retire, your new spouse usually will not be entitled to a survivor benefit.
- If you chose an annuity that can pay a beneficiary only for a limited period of time (such as a certain-and-continuous annuity), upon your death we will pay any remaining benefits to your most recently named beneficiary.
A qualified domestic relations order (QDRO) also may affect benefit payments. PBGC allows all future retirees, whether married or not, to elect a benefit form that provides survivor benefits and to name a beneficiary at that time.
If you are married and die before retiring, we pay your surviving spouse a survivor benefit. Your spouse can begin this benefit as early as the date your plan permits you to retire, but typically no earlier than your 55th birthday.
If you are entitled to or are receiving a survivor benefit when your plan terminates, PBGC will pay or continue to pay your survivor benefit for the period provided by your plan.
A. Normally, we pay benefits in monthly payments for life rather than as a lump sum. However, if the total value of your benefit is $5,000 or less, you may be able to receive it in a single payment.
A. Yes, most traditional IRAs or other qualified retirement plans will accept your lump-sum payment from PBGC. If you have PBGC pay the lump sum directly to your IRA or other plan, we will not withhold tax from the payment. With this type of payment, called a “tax-free rollover,” you will not have to pay tax until you receive payments from the IRA or other plan. You can get more information about tax-free rollovers by contacting your local Internal Revenue Service office, calling 1-800-TAX-FORM, or visiting www.irs.gov .
A. Yes, PBGC generally offers you a range of choices if your annuity begins after we trustee your plan. The choices are explained at www.pbgc.gov/wr/benefits/payments/your-pbgc-benefit-options.html. At the time you retire, we will tell you the amount you can receive under each of these annuity choices.
A. No, there is no cost-of-living adjustment under the law.
A. PBGC only withholds federal income taxes and certain court-ordered deductions. You will have to pay separately any state taxes or other amounts (such as health insurance) now being deducted.