What happens with pension after company bankruptcy?

What happens with pension after company bankruptcy?

If you work for a company that has a pension, should you be worried?

What protections do you have?

Will all the money you have been paying into your retirement just be gone?

Recently, American Airlines filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy leaving many wondering “What happens to their pension?“.

Whether you’re an employee of theirs or any other company that offers a pension, here’s what you need to know.

Insurance On Your Pension Plan

Fortunately, it is not as bad as most people think…maybe.  There are safeguards in the United States to prevent you from losing your pension plan. 

In the United States every defined-benefit retirement plan is insured, at least to a point.  Most will receive all or at least most of their company pension even if your company goes bankrupt.  However, in some cases,  it may not be every penny you expected.

Also be sure to check out my article on, “Should I Roll My Pension Into an IRA” for some options on your pension plan.

What Happens When a Company Goes Bankrupt?

When a company goes bankrupt they have two choices.  They can reorganize and try to stay in business by reducing costs and attracting new investors, or they can liquidate.  The pension plan is usually terminated in reorganization and always terminated in liquidation.  So, then what happens?  A federal insurance agency called the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (pbgc.gov), takes over the pension payments. Here’s some information on the PBCG taken from their site:

The PBGC is a federal corporation created under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974. It currently guarantees payment of basic pension benefits earned by 44 million American workers and retirees participating in over 29,000 private-sector defined benefit pension plans. The agency receives no funds from general tax revenues. Operations are financed largely by insurance premiums paid by companies that sponsor pension plans and by investment returns.

Only employees with the largest pensions actually take a hit.  The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation maximum annual payment, which rises with inflation, is $54,000 this year for workers who retire at age 65.  As with any insurer, the PBGC has some restrictions.  For example, it prorates recent pension increases.

However, in all, 84 percent of retirees get their full pension even after bankruptcy.

A Few Rare Cases Under Reorganization

In a few rare cases of a company bankruptcy reorganization, the employer maintains the its pension plan.  That normally only happens for one of three reasons.

  1. The benefit is low
  2. Employee turnover is high
  3. The pension plan is new

Avoiding Bankruptcy is Better For The Company

In most cases, however, it is always better for the company to avoid bankruptcy altogether.  In December of last year, Congress gave some help in this direction by relaxing the 2006 Pension Protection Act’s strict rules governing pension funding.  As counter intuitive as it may seem, this is one move that endangered workers should embrace.

As a result of this move, according to Dallas Salisbury, president of the non-partisan Employee Benefit Research Institute, ” Given the economic downturn, employees are better off than if the company was forced to make a large pension contribution”.  “It’s better to stay in business than make a pension contribution”.

American Airlines Pension

In American Airline’s case they are filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.  In this case the PBGC may need to step in and assist with their pension obligations.

The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., created to protect private retirement benefits, may be unable to cover the loss because Congress has limited the size of pensions it can pay, Director Josh Gotbaum said today in a statement.

“Unfortunately, when the agency assumed airline plans in the past, many people’s pensions were cut, in some cases dramatically,” Gotbaum said in the statement. The PBGC will encourage American to “fix its financial problems” and keep its pensions intact, he said.

In the meantime, AMR employees seem to be protected.   But a quick look at the numbers doesn’t seem to reassuring.

Recent numbers show that they have about $8.3 billion in assets to cover the $18.5 billion in pension liabilities.  If AMR has no choice and has to terminate the plan, that would leave the PBGC on the hook for a cool $17 billion.

Chump change for the PBGC, right?  Don’t be so sure……

Strength of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation

Just like the FDIC, the financial strength of the PBGC hardly ever gets questioned.   Unfortunately, these are unique times and it seems that no entity is out of harms way.  Lowering interest rates and rising corporate defaults has led to a $33.5 billion deficit in the first quarter of 2009 for the PBGC.  This is the largest deficit for the 35 year old agency which is an increase from the $11 billion deficit ending fiscal year 2008.  Acting director Vince Snowbarger says,

“The PBGC has sufficient funds to meet its benefit obligations for many years because benefits are paid monthly over the lifetimes of beneficiaries, not as lump sums. Nevertheless, over the long term, the deficit must be addressed.”

The Deficit Continues

For 2011, the PBGC just encountered it’s largest deficit while insuring 1 out of every 7 Americans.

The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. was quoted as saying it ran a $26 billion imbalance for the budget year that ended Sept. 30.

Their pension obligations rose by $4.5 billion as they currently insure over 44 million Americans.

Does it make you nervous?  It would me.

How Does This Affect You?

If your company files for bankruptcy or you fear that it will, I would contact the PBGC and talk to them directly.  Be sure to visit their website frequently and check for updates.  You are basically in their hands and you have limited choices.

If you have the option, consider rolling your pension into an IRA to get it out of your company’s hands.  I’ve had many clients do this so that they never had to worry about this.  Be sure to consult a financial planner and/or tax advisor before implementing this step.


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Comments | 6 Responses

  1. Yvette Flores says

    Question… If you worked for a law firm for 25+ years and you resigned… however you left your 401k/Firm pension vested in the firm…Now the firm may file bankruptcy… what happens with your firms… can I go and request
    that my funds be rolled over to an IRA fund?

    • Jeff Rose says

      Yes, you should request a 401k rollover immediately, especially if your company is going bankrupt.

      It should still be protected, but I would feel much more comfortable getting the money into my hands by rolling it over into an IRA.

  2. Mike Pyle says

    I worked for Sears for over 18 years and left the company in 1994. I am vested in a pension plan that is fully funded by Sears. I did not contribute any money to this plan. I do not turn 65 until the year 2023. I was recently notified from Sears that they are offering a lump sum payout on the pension plan or I can roll over into an IRA or my current employers 401(k) plan. Another option is to leave this where it is and receive the monthly payments when I retire. What if Sears fails as a company and goes out of business? Do I lose it all or any? Thank you.

  3. jason says

    my father had 9.8 years out of the 10 years he needed in order to qualify for his central states pension.
    the truckin company he worked for went bankrupt in 2002 so he lost his job or else he would have had a full ten years . he just recently died and my sister and i were informed we couldnt collect on his pension because he need 19 more days to complete his full 10 years and get benifits. is there any way we can appeal this case ?

  4. says

    The figure of $ 54,000 is the maximum amount that the PBGC will pay for a single employer Defined Benefit Plan. There are about 35 Million people in such plans. The maximumum amount that the PBGC will pay the 10 million people with a Multi employer plan is way lower, currently, about$12,870. The difference is due to the amount of insurance premiums that the plans pay. A multi Employer plan pays premiums of $( per person per year. This was recently increased to $12 per person per year. Single Employer plans pay $35.00 per person per year with an additional amount for each $1,000 in unfunded liabilities. Congress sets the benefit rates and premiums.
    Switching to a 401K or IRA might be a solution but if the stock market tanks, you may likely find it is a bad solution. An annuity might be better, but they also have problems.
    The PBGC itself is in financial trouble and expected to run out of money in 10 to15 years unless Congress steps in to give them some money. Currently Congress is not in the mood to bail out pensions. They have spent nearly $2 trillion on wars in the middle east and are loathe to spend money on American retirement promises

    Fred Smith

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