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What are today’s options for expatriates in Portugal with UK pensions and what do you need to think about to ensure financial security in retirement as Brexit approaches?
 

Pensions are often the key to long-term financial security, so it is crucial to take extreme care when deciding what to do here. Expatriates have the added complication of factoring in the tax rules of two countries, as well as the potential for Brexit to limit the range of opportunities. 

So what are today’s options for Britons living in Portugal?

‘Defined contribution’ or ‘money purchase’ pensions

This category includes most personal and employer pensions and Self-Invested Personal Pensions (SIPPs). Here, what you are entitled to depends on how much you have paid into the scheme alongside employer contributions, tax rebates and investment growth. 

Since the pension freedoms of 2015, members of defined contribution schemes can usually do the following from age 55: 

  • Take the whole fund as cash – 25% technically called the ‘Pension Commencement Lump Sum’ (PCLS) – 25% will be tax-free in the UK.
  • Make cash withdrawals when you want – a quarter is free of UK tax each time (unless you have already taken the PCLS).   
  • Take regular income through ‘flexible drawdown’, leaving the remainder invested. 
  • Take a secure, regular income for life through an 'annuity'.

UK pension payments are usually paid in sterling, so retirees living in Europe could find that conversion fees and variable exchange rates reduce the value of pension income. 

Expatriates have the option to transfer UK pension funds to an EU-based Qualifying Recognised Overseas Pension Scheme (QROPS) tax-free. QROPS advantages include the flexibility to pass pension benefits to chosen heirs, take income in euros or sterling and more investment choice. Once in a QROPS, funds are protected from future UK taxation, including lifetime allowance penalties

However, QROPS benefits and rules can vary significantly between providers and jurisdictions. Note there is also a 25% UK tax charge on transfers to QROPS outside the European Economic Area (EEA). Many believe the UK government may start taxing EU/EEA transfers after Brexit, so if you are considering transferring, act sooner rather than later to avoid unnecessary taxation. First, make sure you take specialist advice to establish if transferring is suitable for you and navigate the complex options. 

‘Defined benefit’ or ‘final salary’ pensions

Here, your employer guarantees a proportion of your salary for the whole of retirement. While you cannot usually withdraw cash from this type of pension, you can transfer it to a defined contribution scheme or QROPS. Traditionally, this has been considered less beneficial than drawing a guaranteed pension for life. However, some providers have been offering higher than usual ‘transfer values’ to reduce their future pension liabilities, sometimes representing hundreds of thousands of pounds. Sensibly reinvested, a high one-off sum could potentially provide a retirement income that exceeds the original annual payment, but it is crucial to fully understand the consequences before giving up lifetime benefits.

See more about transferring final salary pensions

In any case, you should consider various issues before making pension decisions.

Taxation 

While 25% of cash withdrawals can be taken tax-free in the UK, if you are non-UK resident they are usually taxable in your country of residency, as is other UK pension income. 

The exception here is UK government service pensions – including teachers’, local authority, army, police and civil service pensions – which remain taxable in the UK only (although the income is included when calculating your Portuguese final tax rate).

Portuguese residents accessing UK pensions or QROPS income will attract progressive Portuguese income tax rates ranging from 14.5% to 48%. If you qualify for non-habitual residency (NHR), however, you can receive UK pension income completely tax-free – as long as it can be proven to be an income (e.g. taken over a period of at least ten years). This ‘at least ten years’ requirement is new, following recent legislation that indirectly requires pension income to be taken as income, not capital. 

For the best results and to avoid an unexpected tax bill, take specialist, cross-border advice before making any pension decisions.

See six tips for getting quality pensions advice
 

Making your pensions last

Having the freedom to withdraw or transfer your pension does not mean that you should; you may be better off taking no action at this time. If you do choose to take some or all of your benefits as cash, ensure you have a reliable plan to fund your long-term future that matches your personal circumstances and goals. 

Beware that pension scams have never been more widespread and sophisticated – generally, if an investment sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Make sure any company you are dealing with regarding pension services is regulated with the UK Financial Conduct Authority (FCA). Remember: unprotected investments risk losing your money, with no compensation if things go wrong. 

Even amongst regulated providers, check for quality. The FCA found that less than half of those transferring final salary pensions received suitable advice. Your adviser should take account of your needs, objectives, personal circumstances and risk appetite to find the best solution for you and your family. Getting it wrong could have serious and unexpected consequences. 

Take care to explore your options now – before Brexit potentially changes the landscape – to establish your best approach for a prosperous retirement in Portugal.

Contact us to discuss your pension options

 

Tax rates, scope and reliefs may change. Any statements concerning taxation are based upon our understanding of current taxation laws and practices which are subject to change. Tax information has been summarised; individuals should seek personalised advice.