National Insurance Contributions

An interesting case came my way recently: a mission worker returning to the UK is unable to work due to ill health, and has been denied full Employment and Support Allowance due to not having maintained enough National Insurance Contributions (NICs) while serving abroad.  This person commented to me:

Right now I’m feeling somewhat miffed that I wasn’t warned of this possible complication on my return should I need benefits.

The sadness of this case is that the mission worker had been paying NICs, but not the right class, and it would have been easy to make up the difference had this person realised.  Which raises the point that churches, sending agencies and mission workers need to be aware that there are implications for failing to pay not only the correct amount of NICs, but also the right class, since there are four different types of NICs.

A quick recap: National Insurance Contributions were designed to be the method by which British citizens contribute towards the cost of a variety of forms of social security (e.g. state pension, the National Health Service, and financial support for the sick and unemployed).  Failure to pay NICs can compromise or limit a citizen’s right to receive these services.  Below is a table (copied from the HMRC website) indicating the different classes of NICs and what they entitle the contributor to:

Benefit Class 1 – paid by employees Class 2 – paid by self-employed people Class 3 – paid by people who want to top up their contributions
Basic State Pension Yes Yes Yes
Additional State Pension Yes No No
Contribution-based Jobseeker’s Allowance Yes No (except for volunteer development workers employed abroad) No
Contribution-based Employment and Support Allowance Yes Yes No
Maternity Allowance Yes Yes No
Bereavement benefits Yes Yes Yes

(Class 4 National Insurance Contributions – paid by some self-employed people – don’t count towards any state benefits.)

NICs are notoriously complicated and we can give no more than an overview here, while encouraging everyone to make sure they are paying the right amount and the right classes.  We strongly suggest that everyone who has worked abroad should check exactly what your current entitlement to state pension is and what you need to do to preserve your pension rights.  To do this you should arrange a pensions forecast.  You can only do this while in the UK and you can find out about a pensions forecast here.  If there is a shortfall in the contributions you have made to date, you can top them up.

With any other queries about your NICs and entitlement to benefits you should contact HMRC who have a specific unit for people working overseas.  Click here for further details.

If you are fortunate enough to be involved in humanitarian or development work, and your sending agency or church has registered with HMRC, you may be entitled to make Voluntary Development Worker contributions, which are levied at a lower rate.  Click here for further details.

It will also be useful to have your residency status resolved as this can also affect rights to benefits.  Many mission workers are keen to be classed as non-resident, but this is one situation in which it may be helpful to be resident!

More information is available on the HMRC website and a particular clear overview is given by the Citizens’ Advice Bureau.

FYI: personal pension plans

Earlier this year we considered state pensions.  While it’s important for every UK citizen to protect their right to the state pension, we are all aware that despite significant recent increases, it is still not very much, which is why it’s called a basic pension.  The current basic state pension is just £107.45 a week, so to be able to have a realistic income on retirement, we need to explore ways of boosting it.  Realistically, this may be hard for many of us who face financial challenges anyway, but we need to recognise that our daily living expenses may well increase on returning to the UK, and our support giving may drop once we are no longer serving abroad.

If you are deemed as employed by a sending agency, they should already have made you aware of their pension arrangements.  Any UK organisation which employs more than 5 people is required to provide a pension plan.  You don’t have to take this up, but if you don’t, you could also be missing out on the money that your employer will put into YOUR pot.  It may not be much, but you’re entitled to it.  Ask your finance manager for information.

Another alternative is to investigate paying into your own pension plan.  You don’t need to be employed to have one of these, and they have an advantage that for every £1 you pay in, the government will contribute a further 25p.  Yes!  Money for nothing from the government!  This is because pensions are regarded as tax-deductible, and you may be eligible for the government’s contribution even if you don’t pay tax!  This makes a pension one of the most effective ways of saving money, as long as you are prepared to lock it away till you retire.  If you live abroad there may be further complications though – some pension plans retire you to return regularly to the UK.

All this may be a bit confusing and you may want to know where to go for help.  Any UK bank or building society will be able to provide products for you from their own (limited) range of pension products, and some other companies are well known.  The best way to seek advice is to find an independent financial advisor.  They are able to provide you with a wide range of products from different suppliers, and are obliged to declare to you what they’re earning in commission so that you are aware whether they’re pushing products with higher commissions.  You can also decide how you pay them – whether by a set fee or by agreeing to them taking a commission.  Our friends at Oscar have a list of Christian organisations willing to give financial advice – click here.

The government has a very helpful website with simple explanations of pensions, and further information can be found from the Pensions Advisory Service, an independent organisation which has a lot of useful information on its website.

A pension plan can be a very effective way to save for your retirement simply because of the tax breaks.  But be careful – the benefits can be eaten away by high charges and poor management so make sure you keep track of performance.  Because of the way pension funds grow, they are most effective when you start investing at a young age.  If you’re within 10 years of retirement, the set up costs can mean it would be better to leave your funds in a building society.

Planning your UK state pension

For British citizens, a national state pension has been considered a basic right for a number of decades and helps people who have retired to be able to make ends meet without working for a living.  Protecting your entitlement to the state pension is important, and people don’t always realise that their lifestyle choices may affect the amount of money they get once they retire.  Like all pensions, you are required to make regular contributions to build up a pension fund, and if you don’t, you could lose out when you retire.  The entitlement to a full state pension will depend on whether you have built up sufficient credits and you can read the basic details here.

This can become even more complicated for people living and working abroad because you may not be making regular payments.  We recommend that next time you’re in the UK you check exactly what your current entitlement is and what you need to do to preserve your pension rights.  To do this you contact the Charity, Assets and Residence (CAR) Centre run by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC).  Click here for further details.

They can also give you a forecast of what your retirement pension is likely to be.  If there is a shortfall in the contributions you have made to date, you can top them up.  Find out about a pensions forecast here.

Normally, state pension contributions are deducted from your UK salary by your employer, but many people working overseas won’t have an employer, or even a salary.  This does not mean you are excluded from the state pensions system.  You can protect your pension rights by making voluntary contributions.  This is usually done by sending a cheque to CAR once a year.  Further details are available here.

If you are fortunate enough to be involved in humanitarian or development work, and your sending agency or church has registered with CAR, you may be entitled to make Voluntary Development Worker contributions, which are levied at a lower rate.  Check here for further details.

You can’t take your state pension until you reach retirement age.  This age is different for men and women, and also will be different depending on when you were born as the government incrementally raises the age at which you can claim it.  Check your retirement age here.  But you don’t have to claim it when you reach that age – you can defer it until you feel you really need it, and if you do, you can get a higher pension or a lump sum.  Read more about this here.

You should also be aware that though the UK pension is increased every year to help pensioners cope with the rising cost of living, but if you chose to live abroad once you’ve claimed it, you may forfeit the right to the annual increase as it only applies to residents of certain countries.  Read more about this here.

Sadly, many people ignore their state pension contribution while they’re working abroad in the mistaken belief that the government will take care of them in their old age.  The government will (under current arrangements) pay you something, but not necessarily your full entitlement.  We believe that in general, making a state pension contribution could be the investment of a small sum to get a big benefit.