Recycling of tax-free cash

Recycling is where a member boosts their pension savings by taking their tax-free cash and as a result increases their payments into one or more pension plans to gain more tax relief.
Key facts

If recycling of tax-free cash (TFC) takes place, the TFC is treated as an unauthorised payment.

The conditions for recycling to apply are:

    • Payment of the tax-free cash
    • Amount of tax-free cash
    • Significant increase in contribution level
    • Contribution increase of more than 30% of the tax-free cash
    • Pre-planning

Case Studies

PTM133800: Recycling of tax free cash

One of the benefits to the member of recycling is that it allows further tax-free cash to be paid. The income that is taken from the pension plan is re-invested back into one or more pension plan and tax relief is applied. The member would continue to benefit from tax efficient growth and would have access to a further tax-free cash sum at the point they take benefits from the plan.

Whilst income payments from pension plans are treated as taxable income, this can be effectively offset by the tax relief given when the payment is re-invested into the pension plan.

It is worth noting however that the HMRC do not classify income from pension plans as relevant UK earnings, and therefore the member would need to have relevant UK earnings from another source so they are eligible for tax relief on the re-invested payments.

Our article on Member contributions - tax relief and annual allowance explains all about tax relief on member contributions.

This all sounds too good to be true...

Unfortunately, to an extent it is. HMRC introduced recycling rules in 2006 as it was concerned that recycling could abuse the generous tax relief system. Anyone who falls foul of these rules could face unauthorised payment tax charges.

What are the rules?

The recycling rule applies to all pension tax-free cash payments where contributions are significantly increased on or around the time the payment is made.

HMRC outline specific conditions to determine whether a recycling event has taken place.

Basically, if the answer is 'Yes' to all of the following conditions then bad things can happen. If the answer is 'no' to any of the questions below, then recycling of the tax-free cash hasn't happened.

What are the rules?

The conditions

OK, so let's take each of the above conditions in turn and look at them a little closer.

Click on a heading below to learn more:  

All payments of tax-free lump sums in a 12-month period need to be counted. This may include payments from more than one pension plan.

Is the total of all tax-free lump sum payments over the 12-month period more than £7,500*? If it's not, then recycling hasn't happened.

*Please note that prior to 6 April 2015, this was 1% of the lifetime allowance.

Because of the payment of the tax-free lump sums, have the contributions increased by more than 30% of what might have been expected?

At first hand this appears to be quite a vague condition. However, it's actually very specific. HMRC can look at the contributions paid in the remainder of the tax year after the point at which the tax-free cash is taken plus up to two subsequent tax years. This would then be compared with the contributions paid in the similar period before the tax-free cash was taken. That's potentially five tax years in total. This applies to member, employer and third party contributions.

Recycling may not apply if a member's contributions increased because they are linked to salary, bonus, overtime or commission as long as the basis on which the pension contribution is based hasn't changed.

The increase in additional contributions is only significant if the total amount is more than 30% of the tax-free lump sums. If contributions are paid to more than one pension scheme, it's the total of all contributions that need to be looked at.

If the member borrows money to pay the contributions or pays the contributions out of savings then uses the tax-free lump sum to pay off the loan or top up the savings, recycling will still be deemed to have occurred. This of course, assumes that all other conditions have been met.

If the answer to all the above conditions is 'yes', then it's going to all come down to the last condition. This is perhaps the hardest condition to interpret but let's have a stab at it.

In its simplest sense, pre-planning means that there was an intention right from the very beginning to use the tax-free cash as a way of significantly increasing pension contributions. To satisfy this condition, such pre-planning must take place at the 'relevant time'.

If a decision is made to use the tax-free lump sum to significantly increase contributions, this is pre-planning. The 'relevant time' is when the tax-free lump sum is taken. Even if the contributions increase before the tax-free lump sum is taken this can be pre-planning. In this case the 'relevant time' is when the contributions are increased.

PTM133820: Recycling of tax-free cash - pre-planning

What are the consequences of recycling?

If a member is caught by the recycling rules, the amount of the tax-free lump sum is regarded as an unauthorised payment and any of the following charges may be applied:

  • An unauthorised member payment charge of 40% of the tax-free lump sum paid
  • An unauthorised payments surcharge of 15% of the tax-free lump sum paid
  • A scheme sanction charge of 40% of the tax-free lump sum
  • A de-registration charge of 40% of the scheme's assets.

However not all of the charges are automatic.

HMRC Pensions Tax Manual - PTM133840: Deemed unauthorised payment and taxation


Case study 1

It's worth looking at a couple of case studies of where recycling does and doesn't apply.

Case study 1

Where recycling doesn't apply

Jim takes a tax-free lump sum of £7,000 on 1 May with the intention of using it to pay significantly greater contributions to a registered pension scheme.

The amount of the tax-free lump sum doesn't exceed £7,500 and no other lump sums have been paid to Jim in the last 12 months. The recycling rule isn't triggered as the amount of the tax-free lump sum is less than £7,500.

Case study 2

Where recycling does apply

One month later, on 1 June, Jim takes another tax-free lump sum of £10,000 in order to further significantly increase contributions. The increased contributions amount to £10,000 and are more than 30% of the contributions paid in the period starting two tax years before the tax-free cash is taken.

As Jim has received another tax-free lump sum within the previous 12 months (the lump sum of £7,000 taken on 1 May), the £10,000 has to be added to the previous lump sum. The total amount exceeds £7,500 so the recycling rule is triggered. Here's why:

  • Jim specifically took the tax-free lump sum of £10,000 in order to pay £10,000 back into a registered pension scheme as a tax relievable contribution.
  • That lump sum of £10,000 (together with the earlier lump sum of £7,000) exceeds £7,500.
  • The amount of the increase is more than 30% of what could be expected.
  • The amount of the significantly increased contribution (£10,000) exceeds 30% of the tax-free lump sum of £10,000 (£10,000 x 30% = £3,000).

The recycling rule applies to the second lump sum, resulting in a deemed unauthorised payment of £10,000.

HMRC Pensions Tax Manual - PTM133800: Recycling of tax-free cash


The information provided is based on our current understanding of the relevant legislation and regulations and may be subject to alteration as a result of changes in legislation or practice. Also it may not reflect the options available under a specific product which may not be as wide as legislations and regulations allow.

All references to taxation are based on our understanding of current taxation law and practice and may be affected by future changes in legislation and the individual circumstances of the investor.

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The Royal London Mutual Insurance Society Limited is authorised by the Prudential Regulation Authority and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority and the Prudential Regulation Authority. The firm is on the Financial Services Register, registration number 117672. It provides life assurance and pensions. Registered in England and Wales number 99064. Registered office: 55 Gracechurch Street, London, EC3V 0RL.