Don’t get caught by the pension contributions cap

It’s easier to breach your annual pension contributions allowance than you might think. Here's how to make sure  you don't go over it.

Thousands of savers may face an unexpected tax bill and late payment charges because they have unwittingly contributed too much to their pension schemes, HM Revenue & Customs is warning. In its latest newsletter for pension scheme administrators, the tax authority said it knew some savers had not reported that they had breached the annual allowance for pension contributions and asked schemes to remind members to declare such breaches on their self-assessment tax returns.

In principle, the system is simple, with most people entitled to make up to £40,000 of contributions into private pension plans tax-free. Contributions above this cap then give rise to a tax bill at the saver's marginal rate of tax, typically 40% or 45%.

But in practice it's easy to go over the allowance without realising it. The cap applies across all the pension schemes to which you contribute. That can catch out people saving both at work and with a private plan. The allowance also includes contributions made by an employer on your behalf, or any other third party, so you need to add these to your total.

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The tapered annual allowance causes additional problems. Higher earners get a reduced annual allowance; it comes down by £1 for every £2 earned above £150,000 and falls to £10,000 for those on annual incomes of £210,000 or more. Some savers have not factored this in.

Another problem is that while it's straightforward to work out what you and your employer have paid into a defined-contribution scheme, the calculation is more complicated for defined-benefit schemes. Here, it's the annual rise in the value of your pension scheme benefits that counts towards the annual allowance, though the formula for assessing this is tricky.

If you're a member of a pension scheme at work, it will tell you if it knows for sure that you have breached the annual allowance. But pension scheme managers don't have access to the full detail of your finances. They won't know about other schemes you're contributing to. They won't necessarily realise you're affected by the tapered annual allowance. That your scheme hasn't issued you with an annual allowance warning therefore doesn't mean you're in the clear.

It's vital that you check your position carefully before completing your self-assessment tax return. If you're in a defined benefit scheme, ask for an annual allowance statement so you can see exactly how much of it you've used up.

In other types of scheme, make sure you're taking employers' contributions into account when calculating your position. And if you think you may be affected by the tapered annual allowance, check what your exact allowance is.

David Prosser
Business Columnist

David Prosser is a regular MoneyWeek columnist, writing on small business and entrepreneurship, as well as pensions and other forms of tax-efficient savings and investments. David has been a financial journalist for almost 30 years, specialising initially in personal finance, and then in broader business coverage. He has worked for national newspaper groups including The Financial Times, The Guardian and Observer, Express Newspapers and, most recently, The Independent, where he served for more than three years as business editor.