Disability and The Musicians’ Pension

Are you no longer performing due to injury or disability? If you are a participant in the Union Pension, the AFM-EPF, you should know about the plan’s disability benefits. The reason why a disability pension is more desirable than a retirement benefit today is that under the ERISA rules, the pension cannot reduce payments for Disability Benefits. You would be immune to the expected cut in benefits, versus if you were planning to wait to make an application for regular retirement benefits.

With the plan entering Critical and Declining status this year, the AFM-EPF has announced its intention to reduce benefits to retirees and participants. We won’t know the extent of the cuts needed until later this year, but the plan is underfunded by about one-third, and only about half of all participants would be subject to a cut in benefits, due to age, disability, or a small benefit. Read More: Musicians’ Pension to Cut Benefits.

There are two ways to qualify for disability. First, if you have already qualified for disability under Social Security, you can provide a copy of your disability letter when applying for the AFM-EPF benefits. This is the more difficult way, because Social Security requires you to be totally disabled for any type of work. But if you have already qualified under Social Security, that should suffice.

The second way to apply for disability through the AFM-EPF is by submitting a physician’s statement with your application. This requires a three-page form attesting to your disability. Link: Attending Physician Statement. This states that you are unable to continue to perform, which could be due to repetitive use injuries, back or shoulder problems, mental or nervous impairment, etc. This is an “own occupation” definition of disability, which unlike Social Security, means you could still do other work such as teaching music, or you could switch to another career.

If you are no longer playing due to a disability, or if you are playing today in pain, you may want to consider if you want to apply for the disability benefit now. Since the EPF plans to cut benefits, your future benefits under a Disability application could remain higher than if you apply under a regular Retirement application. Here are the full instructions for a disability application:

To be eligible for a disability pension, a participant must:

(1) file a complete application with the Fund Office;

(2) stop working in Covered Employment because of a condition of Total Disability;

(3) have at least 10 years of Vesting Service;

(4) have not started to receive a Regular Pension Benefit;

(5) be determined to have a Total Disability by the Administrative Committee of the Board of Trustees;

(6) not be eligible, on his or her Pension Effective Date for a Regular Pension Benefit; and

(7) have earned at least 1 Year of Vesting Service in the three calendar year period immediately preceding the Pension Effective Date.

To clarify requirement #6, you become eligible to receive a Regular Pension Benefit when you meet either of the following requirements:

  • You reach  your  Normal  Retirement  Age  (generally  age  65)  while  you  are  still  an  Active Participant; or
  • You reach age 55, are vested, and retire from all Covered Employment.

Have questions about your retirement planning? Does your financial advisor have the specific expertise and experience of working with professional musicians? Send me a message and let’s discuss your goals.

Musicians’ Pension to Cut Benefits

On May 24, the AFM Employers’ Pension Fund (AFM-EPF) announced that the plan has entered Critical and Declining status and would be applying to the Treasury Department for authorization to cut benefits to its 50,000 participating professional musicians and beneficiaries. The plan is calculated to fail in less than 20 years, including anticipated future contributions and expected returns from plan assets.

This announcement should come as no surprise to participants, and I think plan administrators have provided significant transparency and detailed communication in recent years. Today’s union officials inherited a program that was overly optimistic in its design a generation ago. While no one wants to see benefits cut, there’s no use in finger-pointing today. We have to work on a solution.

Read more: What is Critical and Declining Status?

The details of that solution aren’t known right now, but we do have some new information in terms of what retirees and participants might expect, and a timeline for the process. Here’s how it might impact you:

If you are presently retired and receiving benefits, you may or may not see any change to your benefits. If you are at least age 80, or disabled, there will be no cut to your pension. If you are between age 75 and 79, your benefit will be reduced on a sliding scale. And if you are under 75, your benefit will be cut to no less than 110% of the protected amount under the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation (PBGC). The PBGC benefit is based on years of service and has fairly low guarantees, relative to what some musicians have accrued.

Read more: How to Calculate your PBGC Guarantee.

For vested participants in the plan who are not yet receiving benefits, your future payout will be reduced “equitably”. The good news is that the plan has confirmed that they plan to protect the $1 multiplier.

Originally, the plan was designed to pay out $4.65 a month (at age 65) for every $100 in contributions received while you were working. Trustees realized this was an unsustainable payout: $55.80 a year in payments from $100 in contributions. After 2003, they reduced the multiplier from $4.65 to $3.50 to $3.25 to $2.00 to $1.00 by January 1, 2010. However, all contributions received before 2004 are still under the old $4.65 multiplier.

What the Pension trustees and actuaries are going to do next is to calculate how much savings will be needed to prevent insolvency. This week, they indicated that they will propose a fixed percentage reduction to all the multipliers above $1.

For example, if they calculate a 35% reduction is necessary, that would reduce the $4.65 benefit to $3.02, the $3.50 multiplier to $2.28, and so on. The $1 multiplier would be unchanged. They expect to make this calculation in 2019 and apply to the Treasury Department to approve cuts by the end of the year. The cuts would become effective at the end of 2020 or beginning of 2021 at the earliest.

Some 60% of participants would receive no cut at all, due to age, the 110% PBGC floor, or if they are new since 2010. However, that also means that all of the cuts will be coming from 40% of participants, primarily those with significant benefits accrued prior to 2004, who are under age 75. Any cuts would be permanent.

How much of a cut will be necessary? The plan’s funded status one year ago was 64.5%. It is probably lower today; the most recent data is from 3/31/2018. That’s why I would anticipate a reduction of 35% or more. The actuarial value of plan assets were $1.8 billion, and the present value of liabilities is $3.0 billion. My estimate could be under what is necessary, since so many participants will not see any reduction in their benefits.

While we wait for this process to unfold, it might be helpful for all musicians, and especially those close to retirement or retired and under age 80, to calculate how this might impact them. In preparing your financial plan, we can estimate your PBGC Guarantee and consider how your payout might be calculated at a 35% reduction or other level. In some cases, this may merit changes to your retirement expenses or planning. I’d suggest looking into this now rather than waiting until 2021.

Please feel free to email me with your questions or if you are looking for a financial planner. I am accepting new clients. While I am prohibited from providing individual advice to non-clients, I may be able to help with general questions or discuss your topics in a future post. A great resource is also the FAQ section on the AFM-EPF website. As new information becomes available, I will be sure to update here at Finance For Musicians.

Musicians over 65: Start your Pension Before it is Reduced

This week, the trustees of the Musicians’ multi-employer pension, the AFM-EPF, announced that the fund “will likely enter ‘Critical and Declining’ Status in 2019”. A musician friend, who recently turned 65, asked me if there was anything we could do.

If the plan enters Critical and Declining status, it means that the fund is going to run out of money in 20 years or less and the plan is unable to fulfill the benefits they had planned to provide to participants. (I wrote about Critical and Declining status nearly two years ago on this site.)

Once in Critical and Declining status, the plan trustees can petition the Treasury department to allow them to cut benefits to participants to save the plan and create a more sustainable payout structure. The AFM has announced that they have already appointed a retired member to serve as the participant representative for this process, so I believe that it is inevitable that cuts will be proposed once the plan enters Critical and Declining status. In fact, if I was a trustee, I think it would be irresponsible to ignore the plan’s underfunded status and NOT consider changes to ensure its survival.

The maximum amount they can cut is to 110% of the guarantee under the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation. The PBGC is the Federal agency responsible for protecting pension participants. Their formula is based on the number of years of service. For a retiree with 30 years of participation in a multi-employer pension plan, the maximum benefit offered from the PBGC is $1,072.50 per month.

For the AFM-EPF, we have not seen a proposal of what kind of cuts might be proposed. However, we do know that the worst case scenario for a 30-year participant would be 110% of the PBGC guarantee, or $1,179.75 a month. So, if the AFM-EPF had promised you $2,000 a month after 30 years, it could be cut to no lower than $1,179.75. If you have fewer years than 30, this minimum threshold would be lower, and if you have more than 30 years, it would be higher. (I explain the PBGC formula here.)

If you are at least 80 years old, they cannot reduce your pension benefit at all. If you are 75-79, they can reduce your benefit on a sliding scale. And for everyone under 75, we could all be subject to the same level of benefit cuts. (Again, we do not know how the AFM-EPF will propose to reduce benefits, I am listing the worst case scenario here, of the maximum allowable cuts. The cuts do need to be sufficient to save the plan, so I expect proposals of significant reductions.)

Now, back to my 65-year old friend. He is still working, playing at the top of his game, and is an active participant in the pension plan. When can you start the Pension? Full retirement age is 65 for the AFM-EPF. Once you are 65, however, you can apply for your benefits, even if you are still working.
If you are genuinely retired before 65, you can apply for early (and reduced) benefits.

If you believe, as I do, that your benefits are inevitably going to be cut, perhaps to as little as $1,179 a month, you might as well start taking your much higher benefit today and start saving that money. This is something every 65 year old musician should consider for their individual situation. Run the numbers and compare your promised benefit and what your benefit could be at 110% of the PBGC guarantee.

Usually, I would not recommend taking benefits at 65 if you are still working for two reasons. First, your benefit would continue to increase very nicely for each year you keep working past 65. Second, if you start benefits while you are still working you could end up in a higher tax bracket and see a significant portion of your pension payment be clawed back by the IRS. (Pension payments are treated as ordinary income for tax purposes.)

However, if you have a chance to receive $3,000 a month for a year or two before the pension cuts your benefit to $2,000 or $1,500 or some unknown amount, maybe it makes sense to start right away and sock that money away. Again, we don’t know what the cuts will be or how quickly they will be proposed, approved, and implemented. According to the FAQs on the AFM-EPF site:

“If the Plan becomes critical and declining and benefit reductions are necessary to prevent the Plan’s insolvency, nothing happens immediately. The reductions would have to be designed on an equitable basis. They would also be subject to an extensive government application process, which includes appointing a retiree receiving Plan benefits to advocate for the interests of retirees, beneficiaries, and vested participants who are no longer working but haven’t begun to take benefits. Finally, even if the application were approved by the government, participants would be able to vote on any plan to reduce benefits (although, given the size of our Plan, a vote against benefit reductions could be overturned, or modified reductions could still be imposed by the government).” 

If you are over 65, but still working, consider if you want to start your benefit today. You can download the application and instructions here.

If a reduction in the AFM Pension is going to have a significant impact on your retirement, consider delaying the start of your Social Security benefits. For each year you delay past age 66 (to a maximum of 70), your Social Security benefit increases by 8%. If you compare starting Social Security at 62 versus age 70, you would see a 76% increase in monthly benefits by waiting until 70, plus any Cost of Living Adjustments. If you are concerned about longevity, holding off on Social Security is a smart move.

I would also note for planning purposes that the benefit reductions are limited by the PBGC formula, which is based on years of participation, whereas the AFM formula is based on contributions and the multiplier for those contributions. If you are under 65 and can continue to add years of participation, even by part-time or free-lance gigs, that will only serve to increase the PBGC guarantee for you personally, which could give you a higher “post-cut” benefit, even if you don’t accrue significant new plan contributions for those years.

And for younger musicians, it is never too early to start funding an Individual Retirement Account (IRA) or participating in your employer’s 403(b) or 401(k) plan. Don’t put all your eggs in the pension basket.

If you have a pension question, feel free to give me a call or send me an email. While I cannot provide individual advice to non-clients, I am happy to share what I know about the plan and your options.

What is Critical and Declining Status?

If you are a participant in the Musicians’ Union Pension, the AFM-EPF, you may have received an email this week that said that thanks to good investment performance, the plan would remain in Critical status but not move into “Critical and Declining” status. The message notes that it is still possible that the plan will become “Critical and Declining” next year or in the future. What does this mean to the future of the plan if you are an active participant or a retiree? Here’s what you need to know.

The US Department of Labor’s Employee Benefit Security Administration (EBSA) is charged with enforcing ERISA regulations regarding retirement plans, including multi-employer pension plans, such as the AFM-EPF. Under ERISA Code Section 305, multi-employer plans which are underfunded fall into three categories. Here is a simplified summary:

  1. Endangered Plans have a funded percentage under 80%. They are required to adopt a Funding Improvement Plan to increase the plan’s funded percentage.
  2. Critical Plans have a funded percentage under 65%. Plans in Critical Status (“red zone”) must implement a Rehabilitation Plan which will enable the plan to emerge from Critical Status.
  3. Critical And Declining is reserved for plans which are projected to become insolvent within 15 years (or in some situations, 20 years).

The current 2016 Rehabilitation Plan from the AFM-EPF indicates that Milliman (the plan actuaries) now projects that the plan will not emerge from Critical Status. The steps taken in 2010 will not be sufficient for the plan to remain solvent.

Once a plan is in the Critical And Declining category, the plan administrators are allowed (but not required) to reduce current and future benefits in order to try to save the plan or increase the amount of time that assets will last. They can reduce benefits to no lower than 110% of the Federally guaranteed minimum under the Pension Benefits Guarantee Corporation (PBGC) rules. Please read my previous article on how to calculate the PBGC guarantees.

As independent fiduciaries, I believe the pension administrators would legally need to consider reducing payouts, even to current retirees, if the plan was labeled as Critical and Declining. Their duty would be to try to save the plan. Needless to say, no one wants to see the pension cut payouts which were promised to participants and retirees. However, the actuaries have already said that the Rehabilitation Plan is not going to work and we should now take “reasonable measures to forestall possible insolvency.”

If you are 80 years old, you might not live to see the plan terminate. But if you are 50 years old, the plan might be taken over by the PBGC before you retire and then you may face a big cut in benefits. For active participants, you would want cuts now to try to save the plan or delay for as long as possible its insolvency. Current participants are already receiving less than 1/4 the payout, $1 versus $4.65, for every $100 contributed compared to contributions made before 2004.

For a retiree, however, having the pension renege on the payment they were promised could be financially devastating. At least the current participant has the option of working longer or getting another job. But in the end, if the plan becomes insolvent, all participants will be reduced to the PBGC payout regardless of what we had been promised or had “earned”.

Unfortunately, there is no easy solution to this mess. We are seeing the same situation in pensions around the country, not just multi-employer plans, but also municipal plans like the Dallas Fire and Police Pension, and even Social Security faces insolvency in less than 20 years. The Pension Industry made fatal mistakes in what they thought they could provide and now participants are going to be left holding the bag. There are only two choices, reduce payouts or increase contributions. But the amount of increases that would be needed to make pensions whole is unfeasible, so I believe we will be forced to accept cuts at some point in the future. The question is whether we will make these changes in a deliberate, well-planned manner, or if we are going to continue to deny the problem until the ship has sunk.