Pension schemes are around for a long time, so it's not surprising that they are sometimes changed.

Some changes introduce a different way of calculating benefits or contributions. Others are designed to reflect changes in the law, such as changes in the tax laws or new age discrimination laws. Whatever the reason, it is important that all changes are made properly or else they may be invalid.

Following the scheme procedure

The procedure for changing your existing pension scheme will be set out in the scheme rules, and must be followed. For example if the rules state that you need a trust deed or a certificate from the scheme actuary in order to change the scheme, then you must have this document. 

The most common procedure to change an existing pension scheme requires the agreement of both the employer and the scheme's trustees to the change. Where the trustees' agreement is required, they must consider the impact any change will have on the scheme's members.

Changes to benefits

Changes cannot worsen benefits which have already been earned, unless the affected scheme members consent to this. Some schemes are more restrictive and also prohibit any change to future benefits, although this is rare. More commonly, a pension scheme's rules sometimes prevent certain types of change. Each scheme is different, so it is important to check what your scheme says. 

Where an employer is proposing a change to an existing benefit, any conflicts of interest for the trustees should be considered. For example, do they owe duties to the employer or are they members of the scheme? Conflicts of interest for advisers should also be considered.

The duty to consult

It is usually necessary to consult affected scheme members before making significant benefit changes. This involves explaining the changes to members, and listening to their concerns. Any consultation period should usually last for at least 60 days.

Other restrictions

Employment contracts should also be checked, to ensure that changing the pension scheme does not breach these. Often, these contracts are loosely worded and will allow the scheme to be changed without the member's agreement.

Some rule changes need a statement from the scheme actuary, for example if they adversely affect rights members have already earned. This should be considered at an early stage.

If a scheme cannot be changed in the desired way - for example, because the rules of the scheme prohibit a certain type of change - it may be possible to achieve the same result in other ways. For example it may be possible to agree a change directly with the scheme's members, but this is complicated and changes are usually only made this way as a last resort.

If the change involves members ceasing to earn benefits, it is important to check that this will not result in the scheme being wound up.