Ask Sindie: A Mexican wave for missing pensions

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Q: In 1996 my family and I fled the UK for Mexico, my wife's country, after we lost our house and business in the early 1990s recession.

Times were very hard - I was still in shock when we left - and my private and state pension provision was the very last thing on my mind.

I'm now happy in Mexico and have no wish to return to Britain. However, at the time of leaving, I had a private pension with a company whose name I can't even recall - though I also had a previous NHS scheme. Now that I've reached 59, I'm beginning to wonder what entitlements I have, and what I should do about making sure I receive them.

Can you help?

CW, by email

A: Searching for a lost private pension might prompt a weary needle- and-haystack analogy but, in fact, the situation is far from hopeless. Help is at hand from the Pension Tracing Service (PTS), run by the Department for Work and Pensions.

It has access to a database of more than 200,000 occupational and personal schemes that stretch back for decades.

You can search it free of charge to try to locate your pots of savings, and it should also be able to provide an up-to-date address for the company running the pension. (This may, for example, have been taken over by another firm.)

The more information you can provide to the service, the better.

While your NHS scheme shouldn't be too hard to locate, the company plan may well present more problems. Any information you have on what type of pension it was - occupational final salary, private personal or group personal - and for how long you were a member will be a great help in tracking it down.

Even if you draw a blank with these details, the PTS should still be able to help if you can supply your national insurance number and details of any of your former residential addresses in the UK.

Write to the Pension Tracing Service, The Pension Service, Tyneview Park, Whitley Road, Newcastle-upon- Tyne, NE98 1BA, or telephone 0845 600 2537. Alternatively, log on to www.thepensionservice. gov.uk and click on the relevant icon.

Living in Mexico, you may find that chasing your pension in this way is a drawn-out and costly process, especially if you rely on the post or phone. A second option is to consider hiring help from the Unclaimed Assets Register (UAR), a company that will do all the administrative work for you at a cost of £18.

However, its database of occupational schemes is not as extensive as the PTS's. It could be that you have a scheme idling away that simply isn't on its records.

But the UAR will be able to scour every financial institution in the UK - including building societies, banks and National Savings & Investments (which runs premium bonds) - to see whether you have any other unclaimed, forgotten assets.

Now, if your private pension hunt proves successful, and sticking to the assumption that you're not coming back to the UK, you'll need to find out both how you can gain access to the money, and when you can do this. The timing will depend on the rules of that scheme relating to retirement age.

Check whether you will be allowed to transfer the funds into an overseas bank account. Some company plans will pay only into a UK bank and may require you to open an account here.

If you've been building up a pension pot to pay for an annuity, see if the company will transfer money overseas free of charge; some may levy a fee for each payment.

Your state pension may be six years away but you need to be aware of some possible limitations when claiming it. Mexico does not - today, at least - offer the same benefits as EU countries when allowing overseas nationals to draw their state pension.

When you hit 65 in 2011 and trigger the state pension, the annual payout will be frozen at that level. If you were living in the EU, it would rise with inflation.

However, in the six years left, pension rules may change and become more flexible. Given the reforms already taking place in the British pension system, and the agreements that could be reached with other countries, there's a good chance this may happen.

What you get will depend on how many years you worked in Britain and the national insurance contributions you made. To find out how much you may be entitled to, a good place to start is the Inland Revenue, part of HM Revenue & Customs. Try www.hmrc.gov.uk

Bear in mind that problems may be incurred in gaining access to the money. The UK state pension cannot currently be paid direct into a Mexican bank account - it has to go into a British one instead. And while you could get your hands on the cash in this way, you would have to rely on internet access or funds being wired to you - usually at a cost.

Incredibly, cheques remain one of the main ways for expatriate Britons to receive a state pension in Mexico. But these take time to arrive and are not very secure.

If you need help from our consumer champion, write to Sindie at The Independent on Sunday, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS or email sindie@independent.co.uk. We cannot return documents, give personal replies or guarantee to answer letters. We accept no legal responsibility for advice.

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