I once spoke with a pilot who had worked for Delta Airlines. He’d felt good about his retirement for most of his working life: after all, he was expecting to receive about $120,000 a year from his pension. Then Delta went bankrupt. He did eventually end up with a pension, but it ultimately paid around $36,000. That may seem like a good pension, but not to someone who built his retirement plan based on $120,000 a year.
If you’re lucky enough to work for an organization that offers you a pension, you could also be at risk of losing that pension if your company goes bankrupt. The risks are different depending on the organization and the type of pension offered. Private companies may offer defined benefit plans or nonqualified executive plans. Defined benefit plans offer some safety because the assets from those pension plans are subject to minimum funding requirements; they are typically held in an irrevocable trust, which keeps them outside the company; and they are guaranteed by the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation. But despite those measures, there is still a risk that participants may not receive the amount they were promised, like that Delta pilot. Nonqualified executive plans tend to be less secure. They are a promise from your company to pay you a pension, but are typically not funded by anything aside from cash flow. Municipalities also offer pensions, and they can also go bankrupt. Ultimately, any benefits in that situation will be based on how the bankruptcy judge prioritizes pension claims.
Though you can’t control employer insolvency risk, you can mitigate its impact on your retirement. To begin with, we don’t recommend invest everything in one company’s stock, even if it is your company. It can be easy for people to fall into this trap, when they believe that since the company’s stock has done well for 30 years, it will continue to do well. We don’t count on it, so we diversify.
Also, keep a close eye on your company’s financial health. If you think there’s a chance of bankruptcy, you may want to opt for taking a lump-sum benefit as opposed to taking your pension. Be particularly watchful if you participate in a non-qualified plan, especially if you put money into that plan. You’re compounding your risk by investing your wages in the company that employs you. If you work for a municipality that seems at risk, you may want to consider rolling your pension over into an IRA when you retire.
Don’t assume your pension is secure. Keep an eye on your company so you can mitigate any risk. It’s always wise to guard against loss.