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How are Pension Benefits Computed?

Understanding how pension benefits are computed is pivotal for planning a financially secure retirement. The computation can seem complicated, considering it involves various factors such as age, salary, years of service, among others. This article delves into the intricate process of pension benefits computation, shedding light on the integral role of enrolled actuaries, the limitations of pension guarantees, and the contemporary shifts in pension plans.

Determining the Benefit Formula: Role of Enrolled Actuaries

The computation of pension benefits heavily relies on a benefit formula, requiring the expertise of enrolled actuaries. These professionals collaborate with employers, considering factors such as the employee's age, salary, and years of service. Their job is to ascertain how the benefits will be calculated and ensure that plan assets will be ample to cover the benefits when employees retire.

According to IRS stipulations, contracted enrolled actuaries must perform these calculations. They play an instrumental role in setting the benefit formula, aiming to strike a balance between the employer's ability to fund the pension and the employee's expectations for retirement income.

Guarantees and Limitations of Pension Payments

The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC), a federal entity, insures pension payments. It collects premiums from pension plans to secure the payable benefits. However, the PBGC's guarantees are not absolute. For instance, in 2016, PBGC sought Congress's assistance, citing an inability to support failed pensions indefinitely.

Approximately 10% of pensions have failed in the past two to three decades. This alarming trend is attributable to several factors, including increased life expectancy leading to longer pension payout periods, lower returns on safe investments like U.S. Treasuries, and companies' pressure to optimize costs and satisfy shareholders.

The Shift from Defined Benefit to Defined Contribution Plans

In response to these challenges, employers over the last 30 years have gravitated towards defined contribution plans. Unlike defined benefit plans, where the employer assumes the investment risk, defined contribution plans transfer the risk to employees. This paradigm shift ensures the sustainability of pension plans, albeit at the expense of employees' financial certainty.

The Impact of Pension Liabilities on Companies

Pension liabilities carry substantial financial weight, with potential to drive companies into bankruptcy. In light of this, legislation in a 2014 omnibus bill has permitted the reduction of previously guaranteed pension benefits. This significant policy change underscores the shifting landscape of pension plans and the necessity for individuals to understand their retirement benefits.

Navigating the Pension Landscape

Comprehending how pension benefits are computed is integral to retirement planning. The calculation involves intricate processes and professionals like enrolled actuaries, who ensure that the benefits are calculated accurately and fairly. However, the landscape of pension benefits is changing. Reduced guarantees from the PBGC and a shift towards defined contribution plans have altered the retirement plans of many. Consequently, individuals must stay informed about these changes and plan their retirement accordingly, considering both the benefits and limitations of their pension plans.


Enrolled actuaries must be used to establish the benefit formula.The amount of money you will receive (monthly) from your employer during retirement is calculated by a formula which incorporates your age, your salary, the number of years you worked for your employer, and other possible factors.

The IRS stipulates that an enrolled actuary must be contracted to perform the calculations, with input from the employer, to determine how the benefit will be calculated and to make sure that the plan assets will be sufficient to pay the benefits when the employees reach retirement.

Unfortunately, Pension payments are only guaranteed up to a point. The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation is a Federal government entity which takes premiums from pension plans to insure the benefits are payable. The PBGC only insures pensions up to a point, however, and in 2016 the PBGC is lobbying congress for help since they may not be able to continue supporting failed pensions for much longer.

Something like 10% of pensions have failed in the last 20-30 years. People are living longer than they ever have, so the mortality experience that the actuaries planned on in the past may not have been an adequately conservative estimation. Also, interest rates on safe investments such as U.S. Treasuries have been very low for a long time, and now even money market funds do not have to maintain the value of a dollar.

Combine that with the need of companies to cut corners and impress shareholders quarter-to-quarter, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster with a defined benefit plan. In the last 30 years, most employers have shifted to defined contribution plans which leave the investment risk on the shoulders of the employees.

Pension liabilities can cause companies to declare bankruptcy. Recent legislation in a 2014 omnibus bill made it possible to lower the pension benefit that was previously guaranteed to pensioners, which had not been possible before.

How are My Retirement Benefits Computed?
Will My Pension Payments Affect My Social Security Payments?

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