Lump Sum vs. Annuity
Retirees who are eligible for a pension are often offered the choice of whether to actually take the pension payments for life, or receive a lump-sum dollar amount for the “equivalent” value of the pension – with the idea that you could then take the money (rolling it over to an IRA), invest it, and generate your own cash flows by taking systematic withdrawals throughout retirement.
The upside of keeping the pension itself is that the payments are guaranteed to continue for life (at least to the extent that the pension plan itself remains in place and solvent and doesn’t default). Thus, whether you live 10, 20, or 30 (or more!) years in retirement, you don’t have to worry about the risk of outliving the money.
By contrast, selecting the lump-sum gives you the potential to invest, earn more growth, and potentially generate even greater retirement cash flow. Secondly, if something happens to you, any unused account balance will be available to a surviving spouse or heirs. On the other hand, if you fail to invest the funds for sufficient growth, there’s a danger that the money could run out altogether, and that you may regret not having held onto the pension’s “income for life” guarantee.
Ultimately, though, whether it is really a “risk” to outlive the guaranteed lifetime payments that the pension offers, by taking a lump-sum, depends on what kind of return must be generated on that lump-sum to replicate the payments. After all, if the reality is that it would only take a return of 1% to 2% on that lump sum to create the same pension cash flows for a lifetime, there is little risk that you will outlive the lump-sum even if you withdraw from it for life(1). However, if the pension payments can only be replaced with a higher and much riskier rate of return, there’s also a greater risk those returns won’t manifest and you could run out of money.
Interest Rates and Life Expectancy
In many defined benefit plans, like the XOM pension plan, current and future retirees are offered a lump-sum payout or a monthly pension benefit. Sometimes these plans have billions of dollars worth of unfunded pension liabilities, and in order to get the liability off the books, they offer a lump-sum.
Depending on life expectancy, the initial lump-sum is typically less money than regular pension payments over a normal retirement time frame. However, most individuals that opt for the lump-sum plan to invest the majority of the proceeds, as most of the funds aren’t needed immediately after retirement.
Something else to keep in mind is that current interest rates, as well as your life expectancy at retirement, have an impact on lump sum payout options of defined benefit pension plans. Lump sum payouts are typically higher in a low interest rate environment, but be careful because lumps sums decrease in a rising interest rate environment.
Additionally, projected pension lump sum benefits for active employees will often decrease as an employee ages and their life expectancy decreases. This can potentially be a detriment of continuing to work, so it is important that you run your pension numbers often and thoroughly understand the timing issues. Other factors such as income needs, need for survivor benefits, and tax liabilities often dictate the decision to take the lump-sum over the annuity option on the pension.
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