Pensions rules explained

Find out everything you need to know with our Q&A guide.

How does tax relief on pension contributions work?

Are there any other tax benefits to saving in a pension?

How much can I pay into a pension?

What happens to my pensions when I retire?

Q) How does tax relief on pension contributions work?
A) To encourage people to save for their retirement, the government will pay tax relief on money you pay into a pension. This is equivalent to the level of income tax you pay and effectively means you make your contributions from pre-taxed income.

So, if a basic-rate taxpayer pays in £80, the government will top-up that contribution to £100 thanks to tax relief at 20%. A higher rate taxpayer gets tax relief at 40% so would only have to pay £60 to invest £100, while an additional rate taxpayer with tax relief at 45% would pay just £55.

If you are a member of a workplace scheme your employer will deduct your pension contributions from your salary before tax has been paid, meaning you only pay tax on the remainder. This means you get the full benefit of tax relief at whatever rate of income tax you pay and need to take no further action.

The situation is different for personal pensions as your contributions will be paid from your own taxed income. As a result your pension provider will claim 20% tax relief back from the taxman on your behalf. Higher rate taxpayers can claim a further 20% back, either through their tax return or by writing to or phoning HMRC. Additional rate taxpayers can claim a further 25% but this does need to be done through a tax return.

Q) Are there any other tax benefits to saving in a pension?
A) Yes. On top of tax relief on contributions, money saved in a pension accrues tax-free. When you retire you can take up to 25% of your fund as a tax-free cash lump sum to spend or invest as you choose.

You will have to pay income tax on the income the remainder generates, unless of course it does not exceed your personal allowance. In 2017/18 the personal allowance is £11,500. If you die before the age of 75 your pension can be passed on to the beneficiary of your choice tax free. If you die after age 75 it will only be subject to income tax at the recipient's marginal rate. Pension money is outside of your estate too which means it should never be subject to inheritance tax.

Q) How much can I pay into a pension?
A) Each year you can contribute an amount equal to 100% of your earnings into as many pensions as you like and still get tax relief. However this is subject to an annual allowance which has, somewhat controversially, been slashed in recent years.

In April 2011 the amount you can pay into a pension was reduced from £255,000 a year to £50,000 and at the start of the 2014/15 tax year it fell again to £40,000.

If you pay in more than the annual allowance you will be liable for a tax charge on the excess. However, the good news is that you can carry forward any unused allowance from the last three tax years to the current tax year, meaning you may be able to avoid the charge.

Non-taxpayers can pay into a pension and still benefit from tax relief at the basic rate (20%). You can pay in a maximum of £2,880 which then gets topped up to £3,600. You can also set up a scheme for a non-taxpayer and pay into it on their behalf (this might be a spouse or civil partner or a child or grandchild) and get tax relief at this rate.

Start a pension for your child

In addition to the annual allowance, which governs how much you can pay in each year, there is also a lifetime allowance. If the total value of your pensions exceeds this limit a tax charge will apply.

Again this allowance has been reducing over the years. In 2011 it stood at £1.8 million but fell to £1.5 million at the start of the 2012 tax year before falling again to £1.25 million at the start of the 2014 tax year. In April 2016 it fell to £1 million. Savers whose  pensions were worth more than £1m on April 5th 2016 can apply to have this excess protected from HMRC.


Although the reductions have been made to target the wealthiest of individuals, experts have expressed concern that its not just extreme earners that will be caught out. Long serving members of final salary schemes could be particularly vulnerable, even if they are only on a middle income.

Furthermore, figures from MGM show that a pension worth £1.25 million might not generate as high an income as many would expect. After taking his 25% tax-free cash (£312,500) a healthy 65-year-old male with a pot this size would get an index-linked income of £26,850 a year (with 50% spouse protection).

Q) What happens to my pensions when I retire?
A) You can access your pensions any time from the age of 55. Traditionally pensions have been regarded as very inflexible savings vehicles, with strict rules governing what you do with the money you saved, however following the introduction of the pension freedoms in April 2015 savers can do what they like with their money. This is a massive change.

If you want the certainty of a fixed income you will still be able to purchase an annuity, or if you are happy to accept the risk of leaving your money invested you can enter into an income drawdown agreement. Here you keep your money in your pension but start taking an income from it. Alternatively you can cash in your pension and spend – or invest – the money as you choose.


Prior to these changes savers were essentially forced into buying poor value annuities that might only pay out a few pounds a week.

Up to 25% of any pension you cash in can be taken as a tax-free lump sum, however the remainder will be worked into your income for that year and you will be taxed at your marginal rate. So you will need to be mindful that by cashing in your pension you may put yourself into a higher tax bracket.

Published: 16 April 2014
Last updated: 22 June 2017

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My wife is taking her pension early do to ill health. She has been an none taxpayer for 6years as she receives no state benefits at all due to our savings and my income. We know she can get 25% of her pension pot tax free but can she increase this payment tax free to include her yearly tax allownce

Thanks for your question. Your wife will only need to pay income tax on the remainder of her pension if her total income for the year exceeds her personal allowance - currently £11,500. Hope that helps.

I live in Italy and therefore pay tax here. Can I open a Pension in the UK..?