Pass on your pension without paying inheritance tax

The 2015 pension reforms make it easier for you to ensure your heirs avoid inheritance tax when you die

Chancellor Sajid Javid has gone quiet on inheritance tax reform
(Image credit: 2019 Getty Images)

Will the new Conservative government’s first Budget on 11 March abolish inheritance tax? Chancellor Sajid Javid said in September that he was mulling significant reforms, but there were no firm proposals in the Conservatives’ election manifesto and he has gone quiet on the matter.

The good news, however, is that the pension system now offers a golden opportunity to cut, or even wipe out, a potential liability. Since the pension freedom reforms of 2015, pensions have become a key inheritance-tax planning tool.

The main rules for passing on your pension inheritance-tax free

This is primarily because, while pension assets bequeathed to your heirs have always been exempt from inheritance tax in most circumstances, the reforms make it much easier to pass on such assets.

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You’re now entitled to pass on any unspent money in your pension fund – that is any cash you’ve not spent on an annuity or drawn down as income – to the beneficiaries of your choice.

If you die before your 75th birthday, your beneficiaries will receive your pension fund with no tax implications at all. There’s no inheritance tax due and they can withdraw the money in one go or as regular income, with no income tax or capital-gains tax to pay. If you die after age 75, the rules are slightly different. Your beneficiaries will pay income tax at their marginal rate on money they take out of the fund, but there will still be no inheritance tax to pay.

The reforms make pensions really useful for families’ financial planning. You can pass pensions wealth down to your children – and they can pass it on to their own children if they choose not to use it.

For these reasons, it makes sense for anyone worried about inheritance tax to consider making full use of pension saving. The more you shift into a pension plan – subject to rules on annual contributions and lifetime savings – the more you’ll be able to pass on with no inheritance-tax consequences.

Do, however, check the terms of your pension. Some older plans include clauses requiring savers to buy an annuity or come with other conditions that reduce their effectiveness from an IHT perspective. Final-salary pension schemes also have less freedom in this regard.

Finally, it could be worth exploiting pensions to work around inheritance tax in another way. You are entitled to set up pension plans for your children, paying in up to £3,600 of contributions a year including tax relief even for non-taxpayers. This can be a useful way to provide them with money and reduce the size of your estate for inheritance tax purposes.

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.