Retirement » Pension

3 costly pension mistakes and how to avoid them

If you have a pension plan at work consider yourself fortunate. Only about a third of Canadians have a workplace pension plan today – a far cry from a couple decades ago. Workers face a number of retirement challenges today. The low interest rate environment coupled with longer life expectancy means we need to sock away even more money for our golden years or face a drop in the standard of life we’ve become accustomed to.

If you have a decent pension plan, there are still mistakes you can make along the way. Having worked as a pension analyst for five years, I’ve seen my fair share of costly pension mistakes. Here are three costly pension mistakes that can cost you dearly and how to avoid them.

Not returning your paperwork on time

When you decide to retire or your employment comes to an end, you should receive a pension benefits statement in the mail shortly. If you’re eligible for an early retirement, the package will include forms of pension to choose from, such as life only, guaranteed periods and joint and survivor options. If you’re too young to retire (and not considered a small benefit), you’ll be able to defer your pension (start it at a later date) or transfer your commuted value.

Mistake #1: 90 day deadline: Deferred pension

While you should take the time to carefully review your package for any errors and carefully consider your options, it’s important to watch the deadline on your package. You’ll usually only have 90 days to return your completed paperwork. If you fail to return your paperwork your pension could be deferred until retirement.

For a 30-something-year-old this can be a costly mistake. If you’re not going to retire for another 30 years or longer, your pension will have lost a lot of its purchasing power by then. Remember the rules of 72 – if inflation only goes up by a modest average of 2 per cent per year, prices will double in 36 years, while your pension will be frozen. $1,000 per month may seem decent today, but when you go to retire it may not be a lot. Most private sector pension plans don’t offer indexing in retirement.

Mistake #2: 6 month deadline: Recalculation

Although some pension plans still allow you to transfer the commuted value after 90 days, there’s another important deadline you should be aware of. If you fail to return your paperwork in 6 months (90 days in Quebec), your commuted value will be recalculated. Depending on current interest rates, your commuted value could go up or down .

The commuted value represents a lump sum payment you’ll be able to invest to end up with an equivalent pension at your normal retirement date (NRD). The commuted value and interest rates have an inverse relationship. When interest rates go down your commuted value will increase (you’ll need to invest more money to end up with an equivalent pension at NRD), but if interest rates go up your commuted value will decrease (you’ll need to invest less money to end up with an equivalent pension at NRD).

If interest rates go up by a lot by the time you return you paperwork, you could see your commuted value drop by hundreds or thousands of dollars. If you had simply completed it on time, you would have received your full commuted value with interest. If you’re transferring your commuted value to a financial institution, it’s important to follow up to ensure the paperwork is completed. You should phone the pension administrator to make sure your completed paperwork has been received and is being processed. It is your responsibility to make sure your financial institution returns your paperwork on time.

Mistake #3: Quitting before you’re fully vested

Before you decide to leave your employer, it’s important to know the date you’ll be fully vested. What’s vesting? It’s the date you’re entitled to the full value of your accrued pension when you leave the pension plan. Leaving prior to reaching your vesting data can result in leaving hundreds or thousands of dollars on the table. Instead of receiving the commuted value, you’ll only be entitled to your contributions with interest. If it’s a non-contributory plan you won’t receive anything.

How do you find out your vesting date? Your vesting date can be found on your annual statement of pension benefits. Your vesting date depends on your work province, as well as how generous your pension plan is. In most provinces the legislated minimum is two years before you became vested. That’s slowing changing as the provinces look to modernize. Provinces like Ontario and recently Alberta provide for immediate vesting. That means as soon as you join your company’s pension plan you’re vested.

To get around the new vesting rules, some employers may look to extend the eligibility for joining the plan. Instead of being able to join immediately, you may have to wait two years to be enrolled. If you’re a new employee, it’s important to ask if you’ll be enrolled in the pension plan right away. If you’re unsure, be sure to ask human resources or your pension administrator.


  1. May

    Quote: “In most provinces the legislated minimum is two years before you became vested” Unclear. Sounds like you’re required to be vested two years before you’re vested.

    Do you mean that the legislation says you have to be a plan member for a minimum of two years before your contributions are vested?

    Also, “That’s slowing changing as the provinces…” should probably be “That’s slowly changing..”.

  2. Sean Cooper, Financial Journalist

    Yes, you must be a plan member for two years in most provinces before you become fully vested. Sorry for the confusion.

  3. Ken

    How do I determine the commutted vale of a pension plan? There is no indication of this figure on my pension statements.

    • bob

      you have to ask for it…

  4. Cynthia Callahan-Maureen

    BC also has immediate vesting now – effective September 2015.

  5. Garry Fay

    I’m a hospital employee in ontario. As a divested hospital I have two pensign plans , one from HOOP and the other OPB. HOOP UNREDUCED EARLY RETIREMENT OPTION is 55 years of age plus 30 years of service. OPB equates to a 90 FACTOR DISTRIBUTION with the stipulation that I remain with the successor hospital for 13.8 years. This would bring me to the age of 56. My position was eliminated due to downsizing after 10 yrs. With no break in HOOP contributions I was hired on at a similar hospital. Because I have/had no control over my release meaning that it was not my choice nor was I fired due to poor performance and the fact that I am gainfully employed in another HOOP plan, What are the chances of appeal to maintain status quo with the original UNREDUCED pension plan from OPB as they are now stating that I must work to the age of 60.

  6. Des

    Have started a new job. Previous job had a defined pension. Commuted value I can take $50K as a LIRA and the remainder have to take as $40K cash (will be subject to tax). I do have RRSP room of $50K. I would like to take the cash portion and invest it back into my RSP. Will I get a substantive amount of the withholding tax? since I have RRSP room. Or is it best to leave the funds in the pension?

    • Anna

      if you can fill your rrsp room you will not get taxed. You will direct hoopp to do that for you.

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