What is a pension?

1 min readLast updated February 23, 2024by Unbiased team

A pension plan promises a fixed monthly benefit at retirement. This article takes you through what you need to know about the retirement product.


  • A pension plan is a type of defined benefit plan you use to save towards retirement.

  • Your employer is largely responsible for funding this type of retirement plan, with how much you receive depending on various factors.

  • Pensions have fallen out of favor with employers in recent years, with defined contribution plans such as 401(k) becoming more popular.

  • When planning for retirement, a financial advisor can offer the right advice to help you reach your retirement goals. 

What is a pension? 

A pension is a type of defined benefit plan. It provides you with a set amount of money each month.

Need help with retirement planning?

A financial advisor can work with you to create a financial plan that will help you reach your retirement goals.

Your employer largely funds your pension, with how much you receive depending on several factors. 

More often than not, this type of plan comes in the form of a benefit amount calculated through a plan formula that considers factors such as retirement age, length of service, and pre-retirement earnings. 

This is commonly known as a traditional pension plan. The U.S. Department of Labor provides the following example: 1% of your average salary for the last five years of employment for every year of service with an employer. 

The number of pensions has fallen dramatically in recent years. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, from 1980 through 2008, participants in pension plans fell from 38% to 20% of the US workforce. 

Defined contribution plans – such as 401(k)s – became more popular during this time.  

According to PWC, the US market is more dependent than ever on defined contribution (DC) plans. Over 60% of US retirement assets are now in such plans, representing a widescale shift in investment risk from the corporate sector toward employees. 

How do pensions work? 

Retirees can receive payments through:  

  • A single-life annuity – A fixed monthly benefit until death.  

  • A qualified joint and survivor annuity – A fixed monthly benefit until death, which also allows the surviving spouse to continue receiving benefits afterward.  

  • A lump-sum payment – The entire value of the plan is paid in a single payment. 

Another way to receive your pension is through a cash balance plan. Here, the promised benefit is defined in a fixed, stated account balance. So, how does that work?  

Typically, each year, your account is credited with a “pay credit” or “company contribution credit” and an “interest credit.”The former is a fixed rate of compensation from their employer, while the latter is a fixed or variable rate. 

The investment credits are promised, meaning increases or decreases in the value of the investment do not impact the amount agreed with the employee.   

As with a cash balance plan, most traditional pension plan benefits are protected, within certain limitations, by federal insurance provided through the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC).  

How do you access your pension? 

For those who still have a pension plan, how do you access them? 

To qualify for benefits, you must be vested in a pension plan. Once you are vested in a retirement plan, you are eligible for benefits at retirement age, regardless of when you left the job. 

Your plan will outline the vesting rules, but you must ensure you’ve met the requirements to be eligible for payments.  

Defined benefit plans vest in different ways. Some plans vest immediately – meaning you own all of the money in your plan – while others vest over a period of time.  

Once eligible, you can contact your previous employer or plan administrator, who will provide details on how to access your money.  

If you believe you have a lost pension plan somewhere, you might need to do some digging to find it.  

This can involve contacting former employers and plan administrators, rolling over old plans into new accounts, contacting financial or insurance companies if your plan has been turned over to them, and even searching via the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation

This federal agency insures private-sector traditional pension plans and pays out benefits up to certain limits if the plan fails. 

How much tax will you pay on your pension? 

How much tax you pay in retirement depends on a few factors, including:  

  • Filing status  

  • Retirement income sources  

  • Total annual income  

  • The state you live in

You must pay income tax on your pension and withdrawals from any tax-deferred investments in the year you take the money. Most retirement income can be subject to this, including pension payments.  

This means the money your employer contributed, you contributed, and the money you’ve gained through investments are subject to tax when you make a withdrawal.  

One way around this is to roll over your money. If you choose to receive a lump sum distribution, the entire payment is taxed unless it is rolled over. When you do this, the amount is not taxed until it is distributed from your IRA.  

Alternatively, not all states charge state income tax, meaning you will not pay income tax on your pension if you choose to live in one of these states.

Get expert retirement advice

If you need help managing your pension plan, seeking expert advice is important.

A good place to start is Unbiased.

Here, you can get matched with an independent SEC-regulated financial advisor who can ensure you’re getting the most out of your current plan and are on course to achieving your retirement goals.   

Find your perfect financial professional today.   

Frequently asked questions


Unbiased team

Our team of writers, who have decades of experience writing about personal finance, including investing and retirement, are here to help you find out what you must know about life’s biggest financial decisions.

Need help with retirement planning?

A financial advisor can work with you to create a financial plan that will help you reach your retirement goals.