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Should I transfer my UK Pensions if I’m living in France?

By Philip Oxley - Topics: France, International SIPP, Moving to France, QROPS, UK Pensions
This article is published on: 12th October 2020

12.10.20

I live in France but have pensions in the UK. Should I transfer them to a QROPS, an International SIPP or just leave them where they are?

For British Nationals living in France, perhaps the primary decision to be made in relation to long term financial planning is whether or not to take any action with regards to any pension scheme/s they have in the UK.
To deal at the outset with one question I have seen asked, and increasingly so since the Brexit decision, it is important to state that it is not necessary to move your pension if you move to France. Even after Brexit, you will still have access to your pension funds. Concern that you will lose access to your pension fund is not a good reason to move it!

However, there can be good reasons to consider moving your pension once you have relocated to France. This decision should be made only on the basis of a proper analysis having been conducted on your existing schemes.

As a French resident, the primary options in relation to your pension scheme/s are as follows:
i) Leave them where they are
ii) Move them into a QROPS
iii) Move them into an International SIPP
iv) A combination of the above

Click on the sections below to find out more:

Following a professional review, sometimes our recommendation is to leave your pensions schemes in their existing arrangement in the UK. Reasons for doing this include the following:

  • you plan to move back to the UK at some point in the near future
  • your pension scheme/s are relatively small in value (e.g. less than £100,000)
  • you have a cautious stance in relation to investments, your pension scheme is a Defined Benefit scheme (sometimes known as a Final Salary scheme) and this is your only or primary source of income once you retire

One key drawback to this approach is that you will forever receive your pension in GBP, therefore always be subject to exchange rate risk and currency exchange costs. You only have to speak to someone who already receives their pension in GBP (or even read some of the posts on Facebook on this issue) to see that British Nationals have really felt exchange rate pain in recent years, only receiving €1.10 currently for each £ when once it was closer to €1.40. In addition, there is the time spent researching and using currency exchanges to try to obtain the best rate.

For example, drawing a pension of £10,000 per year and converting to Euro would have yielded approximately the following amounts over the past 15 years:

  • €15,000 in January 2007
  • €10,500 in December 2008
  • €14,250 in July 2015 and
  • €11,000 currently

These fluctuations are not helpful in your later years when you need to plan your financial affairs and seek a degree of certainty in relation to your income.

A QROPS has been the go-to product for many expats over the years. To be classified as a QROPS the scheme must meet certain requirements, as defined by Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs (HMRC). Amongst the key benefits are the following:

  • The option to consolidate multiple pensions into one administratively simple but diversified portfolio. Consolidating pension pots into a single structure is a more convenient way of tracking your pension growth and provides a far simpler structure when you start to draw your pension
  • The currency of the pension can be chosen, not just at outset, but a change in currency can be made whilst holding the pension. Therefore, if you move your pension into a QROPS in GBP initially, if a point arises in the future when the pound significantly increases in value, part of the fund or the entire fund can be moved into Euro
  • A QROPS is a pension which is held outside of the UK; therefore, it provides some protection against future legislative changes that might take place impacting pensions based in the UK. Chancellors of the Exchequer have for many years now seen pensions as an easy target for raising tax revenue
  • Moving pensions funds into a QROPS is an action that is known as a Benefit Crystallisation Event (BCE) and your pension will be tested against the UK Lifetime Allowance (LTA) at the time of transfer. Should your pension subsequently grow in value in a QROPS beyond the LTA (currently £1,073,000) there will be no further test or tax to pay. Currently, pensions in excess of the LTA can be taxed at up to 55% in the UK, depending on the type of withdrawal (lump sum or drawdown). Although in some cases, you may be able to enhance the LTA limit with different forms of pension protection
  • Tax planning opportunities for your nominated beneficiaries on the event of your death. Currently, if you are over 75 when you die (most of us hope this will be the case) then a tax liability exists for your beneficiaries in relation to UK based pensions. This liability could be greatly reduced and often no tax is payable if certain conditions are met

One disadvantage of some QROPS is the level of fees. Because of the structure of a QROPS requiring an offshore investment platform, EU based trustee (typically Malta-based) and sometimes a Discretionary Fund Manager (DFM), costs can in some cases become prohibitive. However, regardless of pension value, there is scope to control both initial and ongoing charges. With proper planning, cost should not be an obstacle to establishing a QROPS.

A SIPP has some of the advantages of a QROPS in relation to currency flexibility and consolidation, but because it remains a pension structure domiciled in the UK, the tax advantages in relation to the LTA and Death Benefits for heirs do not apply. Also, it remains exposed to any legislative changes made by the UK Government in future budgets.

However, if you plan to move back to the UK or prefer to keep your pension based in the UK, then this is an option that may be suitable.

What I mean by this, is that if you have a good, well-funded Defined Benefit (final salary) scheme and also one or more Defined Contribution (money purchase) pensions schemes, you have the option to move one or more into another structure (e.g. QROPS or International SIPP) and leave some of the schemes in place. For example, you may want to keep the security of a guaranteed pension that a Defined Benefit scheme provides but move your other DC pension schemes into a QROPS or SIPP and secure the benefits that ensue from these structures.

Other considerations

In deciding whether to go ahead and transfer your existing pensions into a different structure, typically the bar should be set at a higher level for a Defined Benefit (final salary) scheme. This type of pension provides a guaranteed income for life, offers some protection from inflation and the risk of funding your retirement does not rest with you (i.e. you are protected from the ups and downs of the stock market).

However, these schemes do lack flexibility and by exchanging the guaranteed annual income from retirement age, you receive instead a cash lump sum (and transfer values have seldom been higher than now) which you can invest and spend how you like with access from age 55 and the ability to pass the full amount onto your beneficiaries (tax-free if you die under the age of 75 and also the potential to be tax-free over the age of 75 if your pension is a QROPS).

Most Defined Benefit schemes only pay half of your pre-commutated pension to your spouse should you die, and usually a minimal amount or nothing to your children if you no longer have a spouse at the time of your death or your spouse who was a beneficiary of your pension subsequently dies. A QROPS for example allows much greater flexibility in relation to the selection of a beneficiary, allowing the funds to pass to any named beneficiary. Also Defined Benefit schemes are not entirely risk free – many are underfunded and some may be unable to meet their obligations (although the Pension Protection Fund exists to provide 90% of the guaranteed income if the scheme becomes insolvent before you reach retirement age, although there are maximum limits of compensation, i.e. £37,315 at age 65. The full amount would be paid if the scheme became insolvent if you were over the scheme retirement age).

There are two primary types of
employment pension schemes in the UK

a) Defined Benefit (or Final Salary)

• Provides guaranteed pension as a proportion of final salary based on i) salary ii) years of service iii) accrual rate (e.g. 1/60th of final salary for each full year of service)
• Payable from Age 65 (if taken earlier penalties apply for each year taken before 65)
• The pension is reduced when taking a lump sum

b) Defined Contribution (or Money Purchase)

• Pension benefits depend on the size of the fund
• Significant flexibility in relation to when to take the pension (currently from Age 55), how much to take and structure used to take the pension (annuity, capped and flexi-access drawdown, UFPLS, Scheme etc.)
• The pension fund size will depend on how and where it has been invested and the performance of those funds

Summary

This is a complex area and it is difficult to cover all relevant details within the parameters of this article. There are other considerations I have not addressed here, and this piece should be considered a high-level overview of some of the factors to consider. Perhaps the best advice I can give is the following:

  • Do not just do nothing and leave the pensions where they are because it’s the easiest thing to do
  • Do not assume the best option is to move your pension/s offshore into a QROPS just because you live in France and the UK has left the EU
  • Act now to have your pension schemes carefully reviewed. Engage with a properly regulated financial adviser and have an analysis conducted as to your options. Only then can you make a well-informed decision about what is best for you and your long-term financial security

A final point to consider is that there is currently a 25% tax applied to pension transfers into a QROPS for British Nationals living outside the EEA. After 31 December 2020, it is possible that this tax will also apply to those living in the EEA (as the UK will no longer be an EU country and the transition period will have expired). This has not yet been confirmed by the UK government but the opportunity to consider a QROPS as a financial planning option may not exist beyond the end of this year. If this is an option you want to explore, I recommend you do this without delay.

Investments, what should I be doing?

By Philip Oxley - Topics: France, investment diversification, Investment Risk, Investments
This article is published on: 6th April 2020

06.04.20

What’s been happening?
It’s been a very turbulent period over the past few weeks as Coronavirus has taken hold and the impact on the financial markets has been almost unparalleled. Oil is now cheaper per litre than milk or bottled water due to an “oil war” between Russia and Saudi Arabia leading to an oversupply of oil in the markets. In addition, with fewer people on the roads and most airlines grounded, storage facilities are believed to be only months, possibly weeks away from full capacity. Some speculate that the price of oil could fall to zero! Those assets deemed to be “safe havens” such as gold have provided some refuge but it is still trading lower today than it was towards the end of February.

Most of the major financial markets experienced falls of c. 30% during the end of February and into March and whilst there has been some recovery, there remains much volatility and it’s not clear yet that the bottom of this dip has been reached.

Meanwhile, every day there is news of companies cutting or suspending dividend payments to shareholders and as I write this the UK’s major lenders have all agreed to scrap pay-outs to shareholders during 2020 (after receiving a strongly worded letter from the Prudential Regulation Authority). The banks are also being asked to scrap bonuses to their executives.

Why? Well, this should provide the banks with a much needed, extra £8bn cushion as they face increased demands to provide financial support to individuals and businesses in the form of loans, mortgage holidays etc.

What should you be doing?
For those who are close to retirement age, I cannot overstate the importance of speaking to your financial advisor during these challenging times. Essentially, the closer you are to needing to draw a pension or access your investments, the bigger the impact this drop in the markets will have for you.

For those of working age with a pension scheme or schemes and/or savings invested in the markets what actions can you take? Fund managers have been working hard to mitigate the extreme movements in the markets and protect the value of the funds they manage, but there is no escaping that a significant “correction” has taken place. For those of you brave enough to look at the value of your pension fund/s, most will be facing a reduction in value in the region of 10-25%.

It is impossible to say that there will not be further falls, however history has shown that pulling your money out now (where this is an option) or re-calibrating your portfolio by moving out of equities and into bonds, gold, cash etc. is rarely the best course of action. Typically, these decisions are taken too late (when many of the falls in value have already taken place) and re-entry into the markets is typically made too late (missing out on some of the gains that will have already taken place). The result of this is to lock in the losses that have taken place. Remember, these are only paper losses at this stage, albeit painful to bear – and it is only once you move out of the assets or remove cash that a loss will be realised. Whilst it takes a steely resolve and not a little anxiety, it is nearly always better to stay invested and ride out the storm.

It is certainly a good time to review the balance of your investments in your pension scheme or Assurance Vie to ensure they still match your risk profile. But be careful about disproportionately moving out of equities at this stage, as this may hinder the growth of your portfolio as the markets return to growth.

What next?
Markets will recover as they have always have (think 2008 Financial Crisis or “Black Monday” in 1987) – it’s simply a case of when and there could be more volatility over the coming months before we see this happen. There are some early signs of green shoots in Asian markets, for example, factory data from China showing a sharp step up in activity in March.

But the news from many European counties and the US is grim. Most developed nations, and many others besides, will experience a sharp and deep recession. The hope remains that the decline in growth will be “V” shaped as opposed to “U” shaped, meaning the recession will be short-lived and the recovery quick and significant. This is not guaranteed however, and the length of the downturn will depend on many factors, perhaps the greatest being the spread and extent of Coronavirus cases over the coming months and the speed and size of response from governments and central banks.

So, is it a good time to invest? Possibly, but with caution and perhaps a “drip-feed” rather than an “all-in” approach. And as always, it’s better to have a financial advisor working alongside you to provide professional guidance in these matters.

Finally
On a personal note, apart from when I am out meeting clients, most of the time I work from home – from the end of our dining room table which is in a quiet room during the day. I occasionally remind my teenage children to be quiet at the times they are at home, particularly if I am on the phone speaking with a client. Yesterday, my 13 year old son, stuck his head around the door and said, “Could you guys keep the noise down please?“ My wife and I were discussing the challenges of on-line food shopping and he was in the next room on a live streamed lesson, so his request was perfectly reasonable. But times have certainly changed!

The coming months are going to be very challenging for us all. We are seeing the consequences of Coronavirus both in terms of the restrictions we all have on our way of life and more devastatingly on the lives lost across so many countries. At this time, the overriding focus for us all must be on the welfare and safety of ourselves, family, friends and neighbours. In addition, on top of these concerns, many people will become stretched financially.

As the French-born Etienne de Grellet said, “I shall pass this way but once; any good that I can do or any kindness I can show to any human being; let me do it now”.