Rolling Your 401(k) Into a Pension: Pros and Cons

A rule change in 2014 resulted in the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation (PBGC) guaranteeing that 401(k) balances are rolled into eligible pension plans. What this means is that if a company offers a pension plan, 401(k) balances can be rolled over into the pension, and the pension benefit that would result from the rolled over balance will be guaranteed by the PBGC just like the original pension benefit prior to the rollover.

This will only impact folks whose employer offers both types of plans. What are the pros and cons of doing this type of rollover?

Lifetime Income

One of the complaints about the current system of defined-contribution plans, such as a 401(k), is that it places the responsibility for retirement saving on employees, unlike defined-benefit plans.

Many experts in retirement income feel that participants will mostly be better off with a guaranteed stream of lifetime income of the sort provided by taking a pension benefit as an annuitized stream of income. This takes the onus off of participants to manage their own retirement assets. 

No Inflation Protection

The rule change pertains to corporate pension plans rather than municipal, state, and federal governmental plans. Corporate pensions are rarely indexed to inflation via the cost of living adjustment (COLA), as are public sector pension plans. Once payments have commenced, retirees are subject to the impact of inflation on the purchasing power of their monthly payments.

If the balance had been left in the employee’s 401(k) plan account, they might have had the opportunity to earn investment returns that would keep them ahead of inflation. On the other hand, their account could lose money in a down market. 

Moreover, the combination of having a defined benefit plan as well as a 401(k) plan or similar defined-contribution plan is a powerful one. This provides a means for retirement savers to diversify their sources of retirement income. They can annuitize their monthly pension benefit providing a stream of guaranteed (or mostly guaranteed) income along with the opportunities for investment growth that comes with a defined-contribution plan.

Frozen Plans

Many corporate pension plans are freezing their benefits. When this happens, workers can no longer accrue additional pension benefits based upon the pension formula, such as one based on earnings and years of service.

The implications for anyone contemplating rolling all or part of their 401(k) is the risk of turning these dollars into “dead money.” This means a participant may have anticipated receiving a pension benefit from 401(k) dollars commensurate with the pension formula based on years of service and earnings. Instead, the former 401(k) money is now stuck in a pension plan with a stagnant benefit. 

If this money had been left in the 401(k) plan, at least there would have been the opportunity for future investment gains. 

PBGC Benefit Limits

As of 2020, the PBGC guarantees pension payments up to $69,750 annually. The PBGC is only a factor if the employer offering the pension goes bankrupt; otherwise, pension payments are a liability of the corporation just like a bank loan.

A nice feature of the new rules is that any money rolled over to the pension plan from a 401(k) is not subject to this $67,295 annual limit. If a pension plan were to come under the PBGC guarantee, the employee would receive a monthly annuity payment based on the amount of 401(k) money transferred to the pension plan in addition to the payment for the original pension plan benefit.

Will This Catch On?

CNBC conducted an online reader survey, and a resounding 92% of respondents indicated that they would not consider rolling their 401(k) money into their employer’s pension plan.

This is not all that surprising, considering how traditionally popular lump-sum distribution options from pension plans have been. Many retirees seem to prefer having more control over their retirement nest egg via a rollover into an individual retirement account (IRA) account. This arrangement offers flexibility in the amount withdrawn and allows options in terms of leaving the money to heirs via an inherited IRA, for example.

Another factor might be that the PBGC is not nearly as well known as the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), which performs a similar function by insuring bank deposits.

Should You Roll Your 401(k) to Your Pension?

As with most financial planning issues, the answer is that it depends. Everyone’s personal circumstances are different, but here are a few factors for financial advisors to consider for clients.

Are they comfortable managing their 401(k) and any subsequent rollover to an IRA? This is always a consideration if they are faced with an option to take a payout as an annuity or rolling over a lump sum.

What other retirement resources do they have? Do they already have significant retirement investments outside of their current employer’s plan? This might include an IRA, taxable investments, or an annuity.

Additionally, don’t forget to take their spouse’s retirement plan assets into account. Social Security and pensions from former employers should also be considered. In short, you will want to look at your entire retirement picture before making the choice as to whether you should move current 401(k) assets to a pension plan.

The Bottom Line

It’s difficult to say whether the rule allowing employees to roll their 401(k) balances into their company pension plan will catch on. While it is well-intentioned, there are a number of pros and cons to consider, everyone’s situation is different, so a careful analysis is required.

Article Sources
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  1. Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC). "PBGC Publishes Final Rule on 401(k) Rollovers to Traditional Pensions."

  2. Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC). "Maximum Monthly Guarantee."

  3. CNBC. "CNBC Readers: Put 401(k) Cash in Pensions? No Way!"

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