The AFM Pension Plan: What Every Musician Needs to Know

If you’re a professional musician in the US, you likely received your annual statement from the American Federation of Musicians Employers’ Pension Plan in the past several weeks. The main purpose of the mailing is to verify your Covered Earnings from the past year. Professional musicians often have basic questions about the AFM Pension, in part, because the annual statement doesn’t tell you very much about your personal situation other than your reported earnings and the amount your employer(s) contributed to the pension fund.

Give the importance of the Pension Fund to the retirement planning of musicians, here are five key questions about the plan that every musician should know.

  1. What is the Fund?

The AFM Employers’ Pension Fund (EPF) is a Trust Fund established by the AFM and funded through contributions from employers throughout the country, as required under a Collective Bargaining Agreement. Whether you’re a member of the Chicago Symphony, a Broadway theater musician, or a free-lance performer, you may be covered by the EPF. Currently, there are over 50,000 musician participants (active and retired) in the plan, and the fund has assets of over $1.7 Billion.

  1. How do I find out how much I am going to get?

The pension benefit you will receive depends on your contributions and the age you retire. While it is possible to calculate your benefit manually (it’s just algebra), it is much easier and simpler to use their website at Create your own Participant Login and use the Pension Estimator tool. Please note that while your contributions and earnings are always in annual amounts, the pension amounts shown are monthly benefits.

To be vested in the pension, you must have received covered earnings for 5 years, or 20 quarters. You receive a “quarter” of credit for $750 of covered earnings, and you will receive a full year of credits if you earned at least $3,000 in that year.

The normal age of retirement is 65 for the pension, but you can start as early as 55, provided you are retired at that age. If you are still working after 65, you can elect to start your pension at 65 and keep working, or you can delay benefits until you do retire and your benefit amount will be actuarially increased based on the age you decide to start benefits.

Once you’re logged on to the website and are on the Pension Estimator, you can create various scenarios to see what your pension benefit might be. If you’re vested, you’re guaranteed a benefit. If you want to find out how much benefit you’re eligible for based on your past earnings, enter 0 under Estimated Additional Contributions, and then hit “Calculate Benefit”. This defaults to age 65 for retirement, but you can make it for any age between 55 and 65. When you enter 0, your estimate doesn’t include any future earnings, so you will probably also want to create other estimates based on the future number of years you plan to work. As a simple estimate, you might take the past year’s employer contribution to the plan and multiply it by the number of years you plan to work.  Just remember that the estimate is based on today’s payout and crediting rules, which could be changed in the future.

  1. What are the payout options?

First, if your expected lifetime payments total less than $5,000, the EPF will give you a “cash-out” and send you a lump-sum payout. This is mandatory. However, if the expected payments exceed $5,000, there is no option to take a lump-sum or a rollover. You must take the monthly payments.

You can elect a Single Life Benefit (SLB), a 50% Joint and Survivor, or a 75% Joint and Survivor. The survivor options will pay you for life and then pay a reduced benefit (50% or 75%) to your “joint annuitant” for the rest of their life. If you are married, the plan defaults to the 50% J&S, but anyone can elect one of the joint and survivor options, regardless of your marital status. The joint amount is calculated as a percentage of the SLB, with a reduction based on the age difference between you and your joint annuitant. The younger your joint annuitant, the greater the reduction and the lower your monthly benefit amount. Your joint annuitant must be within 19 years of your age to elect the 75% plan.

The joint benefit is a valuable resource to take care of your spouse or partner, if they should outlive you, and it’s a relative bargain. Choose carefully, because your election at retirement is permanent. If you do outlive your joint annuitant, there is no option to change your plan or to select another joint annuitant.

The amount of your AFM pension is highly sensitive to the age of the participant at retirement. If you started benefits at 55, you’d receive only 37% of the benefit amount you’d receive at age 65. And that is assuming you didn’t work after 55 and had no additional contributions! Also, if you work past 65, your benefit also can grow significantly. For example, if you work to age 68, your benefit base would be increased by 35%, on top of the additional benefits you accrued from working between 65 and 68. This is one reason (of many) that some musicians are reluctant to retire – for every year they keep working, their pension is increasing by at least 10-11%.

  1. How does the AFM-EPF compare with Social Security benefits?

With Social Security, Full Retirement Age is 66 (increasing to 67 for individuals born after 1954), but you may start benefits as early as 62, or delay to 70. With the AFM EPP, Full Retirement Age is 65, but you can start as early as 55; you can delay the EPP past 65 only if you are still working and contributing to the plan.

One big difference is that Social Security has Cost of Living Adjustments (COLAs) based on inflation, whereas the AFM EPP does not. The amount you receive will remain the same for the rest of your life. Because there are no COLAs in the AFM plan, you have to be careful and not start benefits too early. If you can afford to wait until 65, it is a huge advantage to wait to full retirement age to receive benefits, even if you stopped working earlier. The reason is that you are guaranteed a 10-11% increase in benefits for each year waiting, which is better than Social Security (which increases by a maximum of 8% a year). You may or may not get 10-11% in your investment portfolio, but waiting on the pension is a guaranteed increase for life. Most musicians will receive both the AFM EPP and Social Security, but you do not have to start them at the same time.

With Social Security, your spouse may receive a survivor benefit. If your Social Security benefit is greater than your spouse’s benefit, then he or she will receive your benefit amount for the rest of their life, and their own benefit goes away. (If their SS benefit is already greater than your amount, they will not receive any increase or survivor’s benefit.) With the AFM plan, you don’t have to be married to have a joint annuitant and they can receive 50% or 75% of your amount after your death.

  1. I heard the plan is in trouble. Is my pension safe?

The AFM EPP is overseen by the Federal government and is covered by the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation (PBGC), which is similar to the FDIC in regulating pension plans and providing protection for individual participants. The plan itself has been considered to be in “critical status” since 2010, which occurs when the projected assets are insufficient to cover the projected liabilities. That description is a bit of a simplification, but the current “red zone” status means that the plan is required to create a rehabilitation plan to address the potential shortfall. They have reduced the benefits that will be paid on earnings contributed after 2010, and the board trustees, actuaries, and investment managers are working to monitor and fine tune the plan to ensure that it will be solvent for future retirees.

In the very unlikely event that the plan should fail, individual participants would have their benefits insured by the PBGC. While this should give some comfort, I should point out that there are limits to PBGC coverage based on the number of years of service, so it is possible that some participants would not be fully covered if their benefit amount exceeded the levels of protection under the PBGC.  I don’t think we need to be overly concerned about the viability of the pension plan, but I would council any musician to not rely solely on the pension.  You need to have other sources of assets and cash flow to provide a strong and secure retirement.

I don’t think anyone becomes a musician for the money, but musicians have the same financial needs and concerns as any other professional.  Unfortunately, a lot of musicians don’t pay much attention to their own financial planning, and don’t know where to turn for honest advice. I’ve been a member of the AFM since I was 19 and take great joy in helping my fellow musicians plan for a secure financial future. If you have retirement planning questions that might be a good topic for a blog, please email me at Chances are that others may have the same questions! And of course, please feel free to call me at 214-478-3398 if you’d like to chat about any of your financial questions or concerns.