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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

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.

Article by Philip Oxley

Philip OxleyIf you are based in the Midi Pyrenees & Languedoc Roussillon area you can contact Philip at: philip.oxley@spectrum-ifa.com for more information. If you are based in another area within Europe, please complete the form below and we will put a local adviser in touch with you.

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