Can a Vested Person's Retirement Be Sold to a New Company During a Buyout?

Can a Vested Person's Retirement Be Sold to a New Company During a Buyout?
••• Jupiterimages/Pixland/Getty Images

When a company establishes a pension plan, the plan itself is a legal entity. It owns and has responsibility for the money the company sets aside to pay retirees. When one company acquires another, the plan's obligation to pay you the full amount of your vested benefits remains the same, whether the plan stays as part of the old company or becomes part of the new company. While an acquiring company can terminate a pension plan after an acquisition, it can't lower the amount of your vested benefit and must use the money in the pension plan to pay the plan's liabilities.

Pension Plan Trust

When your company has a pension plan that's governed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, the money it contributes each year to fund the plan is placed in a trust. The trust has trustees and other fiduciaries who are obligated to protect its assets. When one company buys another company, the acquiring company cannot access the money in the trust to pay for anything other than the benefits owed to the participants and some expenses it incurs to administer the plan.

Pension Obligations

By law, a pension plan must have enough money to pay its projected future pension obligations. Once you're vested in a plan, the plan has an obligation to pay you the full amount of your vested benefits when you retire. Depending on how an acquisition is structured, the responsibility to pay your vested retirement benefits might remain with the old company or it might transfer to the acquiring company. Neither company, however, can reduce the amount of the vested benefit to which you're entitled, even if the acquirer is a foreign entity.

Terminating a Pension Plan

During a buyout, an organization might decide to terminate the pension plan of the company it purchases. When it terminates the plan, all participants automatically become 100 percent vested. The plan must give participants the option to receive a lump sum distribution of their accrued benefits or must purchase an annuity to cover its future liabilities. If the plan terminates and doesn't have enough money to pay the benefits it promised, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation will pay plan participants and beneficiaries their retirement benefits. However, the PBGC will only pay up to a certain maximum that could be less than the benefit a participant is entitled to receive.

Follow the Trust

Over the course of your career, you might become vested in a company's pension plan and then leave the company. The company might be acquired by another organization, and that organization might be acquired by a different company. Even though a company with your former employer's name might not exist, the trust that has the money to pay your vested retirement benefits should exist, and it's worthwhile researching the chain of acquisitions to determine which entity has responsibility for the plan that guaranteed your pension benefits.