“People always live for ever when there is any annuity to be paid them … An annuity is a very serious business; it comes over and over every year, and there is no getting rid of it.”

Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility

In the unlikely event that anyone ever writes a history of pension schemes there should be a page at least devoted to Irene Triplett, who died three years ago this month on 31 May 2020, aged 90, and who perfectly exemplified the situation that Jane Austen outlined above.  At the time of her death, Irene was the last person in receipt of a pension for the American Civil War, even though the fighting had ceased in 1865 and the last surviving veteran had passed away in 1956.

Irene’s father Mose was what was known as a ‘galvanized Yankee’, a name given to former Confederate soldiers who later switched sides.  Mose Triplett enlisted in a North Carolina regiment in 1862 aged just 16; reportedly deserted on the road to Gettysburg the following year; and joined the Union Army in 1864, serving until the war’s end.  In 1924 he married Irene’s mother, Elida Hall; he was 78 years old, she was aged 28.

Monument to the Union Army’s Irish Brigade, Gettysburg

Irene was born in 1930, one of five children only two of whom lived into adulthood.  When Mose died in 1938, not long after attending the 75th reunion at Gettysburg with veterans of the war from both sides, a widow’s pension was paid to Elida.  Sadly, Irene was incapable of looking after herself and so when her mother died in 1967 a pension for her father’s service a century before was paid to her as a dependant.  The Department of Veteran Affairs continued to pay her a monthly pension until she died due to complications following surgery, 82 years after her father’s death and 155 years after Confederate forces surrendered.

Although UK occupational pension schemes often pay pensions to members’ dependants, it’s highly unlikely that anything similar could happen here for them.  According to The Pension Regulator’s ‘Annual landscape report’ for 2021 (the most recent report on its website) as of 31 March 2021 there were 5,522 DB or hybrid occupational schemes eligible for the Pension Protection Fund.  Of these schemes around 38% were closed to new members, a further 48% were closed to future accrual and 4% were in the process of being wound up.  It’s probably the case that sooner or later the majority of those closed schemes will themselves commence winding up and that their sponsoring employers and/or trustees are merely waiting until such time as the buy-out cost (the cost of securing their members’ benefits with an insurance company) becomes an affordable proposition and their schemes may be wound-up.  That may be due to the number of scheme members reducing over time, improvements in scheme funding or a combination of both. 

Long before an occupational pension scheme was left paying a pension to a single member (and a dependant at that) it seems likely that steps would be taken to transfer the liabilities and assets to an insurance company.  Sponsoring employers and trustees of closed schemes need to identify their long-term goals and should be prepared to work together to achieve these.  They each need to ensure that they have experienced actuaries and legal advisers in place to advise them and should be sensitive to changes, whether in the scheme membership, its funding position, or in pensions law, that might impact on their strategic thinking.  Above all, effective communication with the scheme members is paramount, if they do decide to proceed to wind up the scheme and buy out the benefits with an insurance company.

And the $64,000 question, how much pension was Irene Triplett receiving when she died?  Just $73.13 per month.  Even without taking account of inflation that’s far less than the £2,000 per annum that Colonel Brandon was supposedly receiving in ‘Sense and Sensibility’, but an improvement at least on the $13 per month that most soldiers in the Union Army were paid.