State pension rights of widows and widowers

The changes to the state pension system mean that the rights of widows and widowers, when it comes to inheriting a pension, are far from obvious.

How much pension would a bereaved partner expect to receive?

The answer should be straightforward, but unfortunately it’s not.

We put this question to Steve Webb, partner at Lane Clark & Peacock LLP and former Pensions Minister and here’s his reply.

Q – The first question is whether the person who died comes under the old or new state pension system.

Men born before 6 April 1951 and women born before 6 April 1953 come under the old system, even if they deferred taking their pension to a later date. Their old state pension comprised a basic pension and an earnings-related element.

Many women received less than a full basic pension because of gaps in their contribution record. If their husband dies, the widow’s basic pension is reassessed using her late husband’s contributions. As most men have full contribution records, her state pension will generally be increased to the full rate – currently £137.60 per week. The same process applies to widowers, though if they are already on the full basic pension, no increase is payable.

Q – So, is it possible to inherit more than just the basic State pension?

For a survivor inheriting a pension, they can also inherit a percentage of their late spouse’s ‘additional’ state pension, commonly known as SERPS. Where the deceased is a man born after 5 October 1945 or a woman born after 5 July 1950, 50% is inheritable. Where the deceased was born earlier, a higher percentage can be inherited, rising to 100% for men born before 6 October 1937 and women born before 6 October 1942.

Q – What happens if the deceased was self-employed?

If the deceased was self-employed, they may have little SERPS to pass on. If they were a member of a ‘contracted out’ pension scheme, then a good chunk of any inheritance is likely to come from the scheme rather than the state, though there can still be a balance payable by the state. A modest further inheritance can come from the Graduated Retirement Benefit (GRB) which was a forerunner of SERPS and ran from 1961 to 1975. A survivor inheriting a pension can still receive 50% of a late spouse’s GRB.

Q – Can you inherit anything from your spouse who never actually made it to State retirement age?

I am often asked if someone who reaches pension age can inherit anything from a late spouse who never made it to retirement. The answer is ‘yes’ – at pension age the surviving spouse can inherit the relevant percentage (at least 50%) of the SERPS pension the late spouse had built up, even though it was never put into payment.

Q – Is this the case for the new State pension?

With the new state pension, inheritance is much more limited.

If the late spouse was receiving (or would have done if they had lived) an amount less than or equal to the full ‘flat rate’ – currently £179.60 per week – then there is nothing to inherit.

However, in certain cases the deceased partner would have been on more than this amount. Any excess above the £179.60 figure is called a ‘protected payment’ and half can be inherited. For example, if the deceased was receiving £199.20, the protected payment is £20, so £10 can be inherited.

Although it is being phased out of the state pension system, inheriting a pension is still especially relevant for older couples and they need to know where they stand.

Thank you to Steve Webb, partner at Lane Clark & Peacock LLP for shedding light on this complicated topic.

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