Route maps for the maze

The last in our series on pensions looks at sources of information, help and expertise
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The Independent Online
GETTING a decent grasp of how the UK pensions system works is something that may well defeat many people. But not understanding pensions can lead to poor decisions that will have a serious impact on retirement income. So, to conclude this series, here is a list of sources of information, advice and help.

o Money Management magazine has a register of independent financial advisers (IFAs) who charge fees, and whose advice should not therefore be influenced by the commission they could earn from a sale. For a free list of advisers in your area ring 01179 769444. Money Management is a monthly magazine used mainly by financial advisers and other professionals. It often carries detailed articles on pensions and can be useful to people who are trying to work out which pension plan to buy. The magazine is stocked by many newsagents and costs pounds 4.50; or ring 0171-896 2525.

o IFA Promotion, a body that promotes independent financial advisers, can also supply a free list of IFAs. Ring 0117-971 1177.

o The Society of Pensions Consultants will supply a list of its members. Write to the society at Ludgate House, Ludgate Circus, London EC4A 2AB (0171-353 1688). The Association of Consulting Actuaries (ACA), at 1 Wardrobe Place, London EC4V 5AH (0171-248 3163), will also send a list of members.

o Opas is the Occupational Pensions Advisory Service. This is an official body, but independent of government. Despite its name and origins, it offers advice to people in dispute over an employer's scheme or a personal pension plan. Opas does not give advice on the state pension scheme, nor does it give general advice. Its services are free.

You can turn to Opas only after you have first tried to resolve the dispute directly yourself. In some cases Opas will intervene on your behalf. It is based in London but has a national network of volunteer advisers. Write to 11 Belgrave Road, London SW1V 1RB (0171-238 8080). Alternatively, you can contact it through the Citizens' Advice Bureau.

o The Pension Ombudsman has the power to adjudicate where the advice or intervention of Opas fails to resolve a dispute. The ombudsman can rule on complaints about injustice caused by maladministration and disputes about facts and law. The address of the ombudsman is the same as for Opas.

o The Personal Investment Authority Ombudsman is the arbiter in many cases, rather than the Pensions Ombudsman. In the case of personal pension plans and free-standing additional voluntary contribution plans (a type of top-up plan for those belonging to employer's schemes), the appropriate arbiter is usually the PIA Ombudsman at Centrepoint, 103 New Oxford Street, London WC1 1QH (0171-240 3838). You have to exhaust the complaints procedures of the plan provider before asking the PIA Ombudsman to rule on your case. The PIA Ombudsman rules on cases involving companies regulated by the Personal Investment Authority (or PIA), including many life insurance companies.

o A common area of dispute arises from the pensions scandal, where tens of thousands of people are believed to have been wrongly advised to leave employer's schemes.

The Personal Investment Authority runs a dedicated helpline to give advice on this. Ring 0171-417 7001.

o It is easy to lose track of pension rights built up with a former employer, especially as a lot of companies change their name or are taken over. The Pensions Scheme Registry may be able to help. Ring 0191-225 6393, or write to PO Box 1NN, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE99 1NN.

o For advice on state pensions contact your local DSS Freeline Social Security on 0800 666555. You can ask for form BR19 and fill it in to get a forecast of the state pension you are building up. The DSS also publishes a range of leaflets.

o If you are on the point of retiring and have a pension fund that has to be converted into a pension income in the form of an annuity it is important to get advice.

The life insurance company that runs your personal pension plan will certainly offer you an annuity, but you may well have the right to exercise the "open market option" and go to another annuity provider. Annuity rates can vary considerably from one provider to another. Make the wrong decision and you could be landed with an unnecessarily low income for the rest of your life.

Furthermore, there is now a new option, to postpone buying an annuity but to draw an income from your accumulated pension fund in the meantime. But this option, often called a deferred annuity, is not suitable for everyone. Annuity specialists include Annuity Direct (0171-588 9393) and the Annuity Bureau (0171- 620 4090).

o There are two highly readable books: 'Pension Power' by Debbie Harrison, published by John Wiley at pounds 10.99, and 'The Which? Guide to Pensions' by Jonquil Lowe, published by the Consumers' Association, at pounds 9.99.