Pension Action Center

at the University of Massachusetts Boston

Frequently Asked Questions

This discussion is intended to provide general information only; it is not intended as a substitute for legal advice.  In addition, a more detailed discussion of pension rights — still not a substitute for legal advice — can be found in What You Should Know About Your Retirement Plan,  a Department of Labor publication.  

General Information
Q: Is my employer required to offer a pension plan?
Q: Are all pension plans more or less the same?
Q: Which type of plan is more common?
Q: What are the principal types of rights that I have?
Q: What determines my rights?
Your Right to Know
Q: How can I find out the rules that apply to me?
Q: How can I find out what benefits I can expect?
Vesting
Q: What is vesting?
Q: If I’m not vested at the time I leave the company, does that mean I don’t get anything, even the pension money that’s been withheld from my pay?
Q: How long must I work for an employer before I become vested?
Honest Administration
Q: How can I find out if my pension plan is being administered honestly and competently?
Q: Do widows (and widowers) have any protection if the spouse who earned the pension dies?
Q: What happens to a worker’s pension in a divorce?
Investing for Retirement
Q: What type of retirement plan do I have?
Q: How do I get the most out of my 401(k)?
Q: Can I withdraw funds from my 401(k) before I retire or leave my company?
Q: What happens to my 401(k) when I leave my job?
Q: How do I find and choose a financial planner? Do I need one?
Pay it Forward
Q: How can I help others who have questions about or issues with their pension benefits?

 

General Information

Q: Is my employer required to offer a pension plan?
A: No. Many employers want to offer pension plans, not because of the law but because it helps them to recruit and keep good workers, or because a union has won a pension plan in negotiations. However, once an employer does offer a pension plan, several federal laws (passed in 1974 and since) set guidelines for how the plan must operate.

Q: Are all pension plans more or less the same?
A: No. But there are two broad categories of plans, and within each category there are important common features.

• In a defined-benefit plan, once you qualify for a benefit, the amount of your benefit is determined by a set of factors such as your years of service, your salary, and your age at retirement. The employer is responsible for funding the plan to cover the promised benefits and — for most private plans at least — the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation guarantees the benefits.  
   
• In a defined-contribution plan, the plan sets what the employer and/or you contribute to the plan, but makes no guarantee as to what benefits you will receive. Benefits are determined by the money contributed, and its growth, if any. Profit-sharing plans and 401(k) plans are examples of this kind of pension plan. They offer greater opportunities, and greater risks.  

Within each of these categories, there’s room for great diversity in provisions. Read our fact sheet on understanding the difference between defined-contribtuion plans and defined-benefit plans.

Q: Which type of plan is more common?
A: Defined-benefit plans used to be much more common, but now the defined-contribution plans have become more popular with employers. From the employer’s point of view, they involve fewer risks, and less federal regulation.

Q: What are the principal types of rights that I have?
A: Speaking very generally, you have the right to:

  • specific information about the plan, including a Summary Plan Description, which informs you of the terms of the plan;  
   
  • to be paid the benefits in which you vest; and  
   
  • honest administration of the plan.  

Q: What determines my rights?
A: The immediate source of your rights is the plan document that contains the rules for your particular pension plan. If you have already left the company, your pension rights are determined by the rules in effect when you left; changes since then don’t apply to you. An equally important source of your rights is the federal laws that specify what kinds of provisions must be included in the plan documents.

Your Right to Know

Q: How can I find out the rules that apply to me?
A: Every pension plan should have a Summary Plan Description (SPD) that states the rules in plain language. It is supposed to be furnished to every worker at the time he or she joins the plan. If you don’t have a copy of the current SPD, you can request one from the plan administrator of your pension plan.

Q: How can I find out what benefits I can expect?
A: Many plans automatically provide a yearly statement that tells you two things: the benefits you have accrued up to now; that is, the benefits that you would be entitled to even if you retired tomorrow and the benefits you can expect if you retire at whatever standard age is specified in your employer's plan. The Pension Protection Act of 2006 requires that plans provide benefit statements to plan participants.

Vesting

Q: What is vesting?
A: Vesting is a guarantee that you will receive the benefits you have earned, regardless of whether you are still working for that particular employer at the time you retire. Pension plans specify a certain amount of time (usually five years, under current federal law) needed before you become vested.

Q: If I’m not vested at the time I leave the company, does that mean I don’t get anything, even the pension money that’s been withheld from my pay?
A: No. You’re always entitled to the money that you yourself contributed to the plan. If you’re not vested, however, you won’t be entitled to the benefits your employer provides.

Q: How long must I work for an employer before I become vested?
A: That depends on the plan and on the vesting requirement that was in place when you left employment. For private plans, federal law provides a minimum vesting requirement, and that requirement has changed. Before 1976, periods of 20 years or more were common, and a plan could even require that you keep working for the company until you retired. From the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, a vesting period of ten years was most common; since the mid-1980s, it has been five years. However, union plans have just recently been required to reduce vesting requirements to five years. Your Summary Plan Description will explain the plan’s vesting requirement.

Honest Administration

Q: How can I find out if my pension plan is being administered honestly and competently?
A: The Employee Benefits Security Administration of the U.S. Department of Labor is responsible for ensuring that plan administrators operate the plan solely for the benefits of its participants.  If you have concerns about your plan, you should contact them at www.askebsa.dol.gov or write them at The U.S. Department of Labor, Employee Benefits Security Administration, 200 Constitution Ave., NW, Room N5625, Washington, DC 20210.

Women and Pensions

Q: Do widows (and widowers) have any protection if the spouse who earned the pension dies?
A: The Retirement Equity Act of 1984 has a provision covering the “joint and survivor” option, which most plans are required to offer. Under this option, the benefits paid to a married worker will be somewhat smaller during his or her lifetime, but will continue after death if the spouse is still living. Under the REA, this option must be chosen unless a waiver form is signed by the spouse.

Q: What happens to a worker’s pension in a divorce?
A: The REA authorizes courts to treat a pension as one of the assets that can be divided during a divorce settlement, but it doesn’t require courts to do so.

Note: The Women's Institute for a Secure Retirement (WISER) is an excellent source of information on pension issues that especially involve women.

Investing for Retirement

Q: What type of retirement plan do I have?

Your plan may be either a defined benefit or a defined contribution plan. Each type of pension plan has both advantages and disadvantages. To learn more, read the Pension Action Center's fact sheet “Understanding the Differences Between Defined Benefit Pension Plans and Defined Contribution.”

Q: How do I get the most out of my 401(k)?

To determine how much to contribute, consider the annual contribution limits, as well as your individual needs. If your employer offers a match, it may be wise to contribute enough to receive the maximum employer benefit. Make sure that you are aware of the fees associated with your plan. Also, ensure that you obtain a copy of the Summary Plan Description and your annual benefit statement. The fact sheet "Getting the Most Out of Your 401(k)" has more information about enrolling in a 401(k) retirement savings account and important items to keep in mind once you are enrolled.

Q: Can I withdraw funds from my 401(k) before I retire or leave my company?

It is typically an option to take hardship withdrawals and loans from 401(k) accounts. However, it might have a long-term impact on your retirement security. Before taking a withdrawal or a loan, read the fact sheet "Hardship Withdrawals and Loans: Some Words of Caution."

Q: What happens to my 401(k) when I leave my job?

You may be able to leave your money in your former employer's plan. If you do so, be sure that they have your current address! Other options may be an immediate or a deferred rollover to your new employer's plan, transferring the funds to an IRA, or withdrawing the money. Learn more by reading the fact sheet "Your Former Employer's 401(k)."

Q: How do I find and choose a financial planner? Do I need one?

If you have questions about saving for your retirement or are unsure about how to plan and execute your retirement goals, hiring a financial planner might be a good option for you. However, make sure you do your homework first! You should know how to find a qualified planner, who will make decisions that align with your best interests. The fact sheet "Finding a Financial Planner" has some helpful questions to ask when interviewing potential financial planners, as well as warning signs to look out for!

If the planner is paid on commission earned on the investments she sells, she may have a biased incentive to steer you in a particular direction that may not be within your best interest. Search the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors database for fee-only financial advisors.

Pay it Forward

Q: How can I help others who have questions about or issues with their pension benefits?

Donate to the Pension Action Center. The center's cases are managed by four pension counselors and two attorneys. Our staff, although small, works tirelessly for weeks, even years, to obtain pension benefits for our clients. In fact, for every dollar that we have received of federal, state, and foundation support, we have recovered $14 dollars in pension benefits for our clients.

Many people have questions about their retirement benefits. We have answers and, with your donation, we can help even more people. Donate now

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Questions About Your Pension?

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Help people understand their retirement benefits through a gift to the center. Read More 

Need help now?

Call the Pension Action Center toll-free at 888.425.6067.

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