Locked-in plans require careful thought

Employees who retire, terminate their employment early, or find their pension plan being discontinued need to make some important decisions.  Some pension plans are being closed and employees have the “lump sum” or “annuity” option.  Other people are faced with a difficult choice, which we discussed in our last article.  Do you take a lump sum of money from the pension today, purchase an annuity, or wait to receive a monthly cheque at retirement?

The lump sum option allows the fully vested (owned) pension benefits to be transferred to a locked-in registered plan.  This article focuses on lump sum transfers to locked-in accounts.

So, what is a locked-in account?  This type of investment account is registered and is one where the plan issuer signs an agreement with your employer to “lock-in” your pension plan proceeds until retirement.  A lump sum from your pension plan is transferred into the registered locked-in investment account.  The age at which the funds may be released, and to what uses they may be put, vary with the pension legislation governing the plan.  Any amounts earned by the plan also become locked-in.

Withdrawals are generally not allowed from Locked-in Registered Savings Plans (LRSP) or Locked-In Retirement Accounts (LIRA), except in limited circumstances such as shortened life expectancy, small balance or financial hardship.  The governing legislation controls these funds, even though the employee can invest them as they wish (similar to an RRSP).  Some provinces have been changing their legislation with respect to locked-in accounts.

Governing Jurisdiction

Knowing the jurisdiction of your pension will assist your financial advisor in setting up the correct account.  In B.C., locked-in accounts are generally referred to as Locked-in Registered Savings Plans (LRSP).  In Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Quebec, New Brunswick, Ontario, Newfoundland, and Nova Scotia these accounts are referred to as Locked-In Retirement Accounts (LIRA).

Company pension plans in Canada can be established and registered under either provincial or federal legislation. The legislation governing an individual’s funds must be established upon opening the locked-in plan, as this will determine what type of plan will be opened. The pension plan administrator or the financial institution transferring the funds should provide the information necessary to correctly identify the jurisdiction governing the funds.

Provincially Regulated Pension Plans

Most pension plans are established under provincial legislation. For all provinces and territories except Quebec, the province in which the client resides on the date they terminate employment determines the governing jurisdiction, which may in fact differ from the jurisdiction in which the company is registered.

For example, a person living in Ontario the day they terminate their employment will have their funds under Ontario jurisdiction. Even if this person moves to British Columbia and transfers their pension funds, the client must open a LIRA (the name for a locked-in plan for Ontario) and not an LRSP because the funds are still under Ontario jurisdiction.

Federally Regulated Pension Plans

For federally regulated pension plans, the person’s governing jurisdiction is Canada regardless of place of residence. This applies for crown corporations or companies under federal charter.  A person living in Alberta (which offers LIRAs) who has federally regulated funds will be required to open an LRSP, since federally regulated funds require LRSPs and not LIRAs.

Maturity Options

The earliest age in which you may transfer your LRSP or LIRA into an income account (LRIF or LIF) varies by province. The governing jurisdiction also dictates the minimum age when a client can transfer their locked-in funds.  Similar to an RRSP, locked-in accounts must be converted into an “income account” or a life annuity in the year individuals turn 69.   The 2007 Federal budget proposes to extend this conversion to when the taxpayer reaches the age of 71.

Withdrawls

The minimum and maximum withdrawal amount will fluctuate from year to year and is based on the year-end value.  The year-to-year amount will vary depending on the amount of money you withdraw, the income your plan earned and any market fluctuations that may occur.  A LRIF/LIF is similar to a RRIF in that the holder is required to receive a minimum payment out of the plan each year.  The minimum payment levels are calculated using the same method used for RRIF payments.  Additionally, these accounts are subjected to a maximum withdrawal limit. The maximum amount is established by a formula, which takes into account a discount factor and the person’s age.

In the first year an LRIF/LIF is opened, there is no minimum withdrawal required; however there is still a maximum allowable payment. This maximum is pro-rated for the number of months, including the month of transfer into the plan that is remaining in the year.

Transfer Process

Moving from a Registered Pension Plan to a locked-in plan is usually straightforward.  The first step begins with opening a self-directed locked-in registered account.  The institution name and account number will be required to complete the forms provided by your employer.  Typical forms may include a cover letter with the estimated pension value, Canada Revenue Agency forms (i.e. T2151 for direct transfer and T2037 for purchase of annuity) and a locked-in agreement.  Your investment advisor should be able to assist you with completing these forms in conjunction with setting up the appropriate account.

Cash Transfer

Lump sum pension transfers to a locked-in account generally take two to four weeks and come in as cash.  During the transfer period we recommend that individuals meet with their advisor and begin planning their investment portfolio.  For many people a lump sum transfer from their registered pension plan represents the most significant portion of their retirement savings.

Before making a final decision we recommend that you speak with your professional advisors.