27% of people surveyed did not know how it worked. To encourage saving for retirement, the government pays tax relief on pension contributions. This means that your pension provider can claim tax back from HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) and add that amount to each contribution you make.
But this fundamental aspect of pensions remains a mystery to many people with 27% of people admitting they have never even heard of tax relief, according to new research.
Findings identified that only 15% of those surveyed said they fully understood how tax relief on pension contributions work, while a further 31% said they had some understanding. The remaining 27% said they had heard of pensions tax relief but did not know how it worked.
Contributing more towards pensions over time
Differences in understanding are particularly acute between men and women with one-third (33%) of women having no knowledge of tax relief in comparison to a fifth (20%) of men. A further third (33%) said they had some understanding of how pension tax relief worked in comparison to almost three in five (59%) men.
The data shows that once people had a better understanding of how pensions tax relief works it made them view pensions more positively and could even lead to them contributing more towards their pensions over time.
Contributing to the pension of a spouse or child
Overall, almost one-third (32%) said they now viewed pensions more positively while 25% said they would be more likely to increase pensions contributions as a result. Other areas of pensions tax relief causing confusion included the ability to pay contributions for another person as well as the use of salary and bonus sacrifice.
Of those questioned, 60% said they were unaware they could contribute to the pension of a spouse or child enabling them to benefit from the tax relief as well as the boost to their pension contributions. There were also low levels of awareness around salary and bonus sacrifice with 52% and 62% respectively saying they had never heard of the terms.
Tax relief arrangements
The way tax relief is claimed depends on the type of pension you are saving into.
A ‘net pay’ arrangement is used by some workplace pensions, and don’t require you to do anything to receive your full tax relief. Your pension contributions are deducted from your salary before Income Tax is paid on them, and your pension scheme automatically claims back tax relief at your highest rate of income tax.
Alternatively, ‘relief at source’ applies to all personal pensions and some workplace pensions. So, if you have a private pension with an insurance company, or a Self-Invested Personal Pension (SIPP), this will apply to you.
If you’re paying into a pension through your employer, your employer will take 80% of your pension contribution from your salary (technically known as ‘net of basic rate tax relief’). Your pension scheme then sends a request to HMRC, which pays an additional 20% tax relief into your pension.
Under this system, higher and additional-rate taxpayers must complete a self-assessment tax return to receive the extra relief due to them. However, you can carry forward unused allowances from the previous three years, as long as you were a member of a pension scheme during those years.
 Research of 2,000 UK adults carried out by Opinium on behalf of Royal London 27 May 2021.