Pension Max: Is It Right For You?

If you’re near retirement and have a pension, you may be considering a pension max strategy.  With all the variables involved, it can be challenging to determine if it’s really in your best interest.

First – what is pension max?

Pension max is used by married couples to increase their net retirement income while still protecting the surviving spouse’s income in the event the pension recipient dies first.  Basically, the pension recipient elects a single life pension instead of one with a survivor benefit for their spouse.  This results in a higher monthly pension benefit.  Then the pension recipient purchases life insurance to allow the surviving spouse to replace the pension income in the event that the pension recipient dies first.  In some situations, this approach can result in a higher net retirement income if the cost of the needed life insurance is less than the increased pension benefits.

Pension max always results in more premiums for the insurance company, but doesn’t always result in more income for you.  How do you decide if it’s in your best interest?

First — at the risk of stating the obvious — if you’re not married, there’s no reason to consider it.  Depending on your estate goals and health, there may be other strategies that make sense.

Second – the health and age of the pension recipient matters a great deal.  If the pension recipient is in excellent health and can likely qualify for preferred life insurance rates, pension max has a lot better chance of being a good idea.

Third – you need to determine how much and what kind of life insurance is needed to replace the income.  As the pension recipient gets older, less life insurance death benefit will be required to replace the pension income.  Usually some combination of tiered term-life policies and a small amount of permanent insurance fit the bill.

Fourth – the surviving spouse should have an idea of how they will use the life insurance death benefit to replace the pension income.  For many, a single-premium immediate annuity makes the most sense, however other draw-down investment scenarios can also be considered.

Fifth – you need to consider taxes in your calculations on both the life insurance benefit and the increased pension benefit.

  • Life insurance death benefits are generally not subject to income taxes.  With an unlimited marital exemption, the estate tax will not be an issue when the first spouse dies.  However, depending on the overall size of the estate and the death benefit, it could be an issue when the second spouse dies.
  • The increased pension benefit will be subject to income taxes.  So when you’re comparing the net effect on your income, you need to calculate how much your pension will be worth after taxes because you will be paying the life insurance premiums with after-tax dollars.  This is an easy area to ignore, but depending on your tax bracket the effect of taxes can make or break the plan.

Sixth – consider the convenience factor.  If there’s just a very small financial benefit to using a pension max strategy in your situation, it may still make sense to forego it.  You need to weigh the simplicity of just taking the pension against the extra effort of going through life insurance underwriting and paying the premiums ongoing.

If you’re seriously considering using a pension max strategy, it’s a good idea to have an uninterested third party talk through the analysis with you.  A fee-only financial advisor who doesn’t have a big insurance commission at stake based on your decision will be able to offer objective advice.  And even though you spend some money on the advice, it may help you save much more over the long term and at very least feel confident that you made the right decision based on your unique situation.

About the author

Jean Keener, CRPC®, CFDP®


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  • If you are in good health, see what $85 per month will buy you in life insurance benefit (term, UL, etc). A decreasing benefit could be the right plan for you. I think only Protective life sells it. Also, get a quote on what pension amount you get if your wife gets the 100% of your pension. Most critics of this concept ignore the fact that pension plans always stop after the surviving spouse dies (leaving nothing for the children).

  • I am about to retire from the military. Let say I will be getting $1000.00 per month. The military offers the Survivor Benefit Plan for the spouse if I die first. That is, if I elect to par-take of the SBP they will withhold $100.00 per month to pay for it. My spouse will then get 55% of my retirement if I die first.

    The pros are as follows:
    I would only get taxed on $900.00 not $1,000.00.
    I would get a COLA increase every year.
    The set amount each year is Guarantee.

    The negatives are as follows:
    If I die first then my wife, say 2 years later, then everything stops. Nothing to pass on to my children.

    How would a Pension Maximization favor in comparison with the military’s SBP?


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