Should I pay to fill gaps in my state pension record?

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What should I do about the gaps in my state pension record that the official website says it is still ‘checking’? Steve Webb replies


I’ve been on the Government gateway site for a few years now, to check my state pension.

I have a few years that say ‘you didn’t pay enough National Insurance this year, we are checking to see if this year will qualify’ but this message never changes. Why? And will they check?

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Retirement planning: What should you do about gaps in your state pension record

Retirement planning: What should you do about gaps in your state pension record

Steve Webb replies: As you have discovered, when you go on to the gov.uk website to check your state pension you are given a year-by-year account of your National Insurance record. 

I would encourage everyone of working age to do this, as it is much easier to spot errors while you still have payslips and other recent paperwork rather than leaving it until you retire.

In most years you are likely to see that the year in question is described as a ‘full year’.

This means that you paid (or were credited with) enough National Insurance Contributions for that year to count as a ‘qualifying year’ towards your state pension.

Where a year is currently shown as ‘not full’, there are some situations in which that may change in future.

Steve Webb: Find out how to ask the former Pensions Minister a question about your retirement savings in the box below

Steve Webb: Find out how to ask the former Pensions Minister a question about your retirement savings in the box below

If the year in question is very recent (for example, 2020/21) it may be the case that they have simply not yet loaded the most recent National Insurance information.

For example, if you check your records at the start of a new financial year in April or May, it would not be uncommon for the previous year to be temporarily shown as ‘not full’.

But if you check again later in the year you will find that this has changed.

A second reason why a recent year might not be showing relates to those who are self-employed.

The National Insurance Contributions of the self-employed are in many cases now collected via the tax return process rather than through paying a weekly ‘stamp’ as was once the case.

Because tax returns are filed well after the end of the relevant year it can take a while for the NI contributions of the self-employed to show up.

However, for anything older than this I would be surprised if a year shown as ‘not full’ suddenly turned into a complete year without action on your part.

There are two main ways in which an older year can move from being ‘not full’ into being a qualifying year towards your state pension, but both require action on your part.

One would be if a National Insurance credit is claimed for the year in question, albeit some years after the event.

For example, grandparents and other family carers who look after a child so that the child’s mother or father can go back to work may be entitled to claim a National Insurance credit.

For those who have been family carers for a long time, these claims can be backdated up to when the scheme was first introduced a decade ago.

A successful backdated claim for this credit could result in a number of older years turning from ‘not full’ to ‘full’.

Another way of turning old years into qualifying years would be to pay voluntary NI contributions for the year in question.

For the self-employed these can be paid at the Class 2 rate and for others they can be paid at the Class 3 rate, but both are subsidised by the government and generally represent a relatively cost effective way of boosting your pension if you would not otherwise get a full state pension. 

There are however deadlines on paying these contributions (in most cases six years) so I would encourage you not to delay if you are short of the contributions that you need to maximise your state pension.

There are however deadlines on paying these contributions so I would encourage you not to delay if you are short of the contributions that you need to maximise your state pension.

Why do some top-ups NOT improve the state pension?

An overhaul in April 2016 replaced the old two-tier system with a flat-rate state pension, which is now worth £179.60 a week if you qualify for the full amount, writes This is Money.

As a result, some people have already maxed out any possible benefits from the old basic rate state pension, currently worth £137.60 a week, and will only find it worth filling in gaps or buying top-ups for years following the changeover.

However, it depends on your personal National Insurance record, whether you were contracted out of the second state pension at any point, and other individual factors. Read more here. 

But you should also be careful to make sure that any contributions you pay do actually boost your pension. In particular, contributions for years before 2016/17 may not increase your pension, depending on the details of your contribution record. See the box on the right.

I would stress that there is nothing inherently wrong in having a small number of gaps in your NI record (assuming that you paid whatever NI was legally due on your earnings or self-employment at the time).

Ignoring the effects of ‘contracting out’, it is possible to get a maximum flat rate pension (currently £179.60 a week) based on just 35 years of full contributions out of a working life of around 50 years.

If your forecast is already showing this amount ‘in the bank’, there is nothing to be gained by filling historical gaps in your NI record on a voluntary basis.

Just because you didn’t ‘pay enough’ NI in the year in question to make it a qualifying year towards your state pension doesn’t mean you have to do anything about that fact now.

Ask Steve Webb a pension question

Former Pensions Minister Steve Webb is This Is Money’s Agony Uncle.

He is ready to answer your questions, whether you are still saving, in the process of stopping work, or juggling your finances in retirement.

Steve left the Department of Work and Pensions after the May 2015 election. He is now a partner at actuary and consulting firm Lane Clark & Peacock.

If you would like to ask Steve a question about pensions, please email him at [email protected]

Steve will do his best to reply to your message in a forthcoming column, but he won’t be able to answer everyone or correspond privately with readers. Nothing in his replies constitutes regulated financial advice. Published questions are sometimes edited for brevity or other reasons.

Please include a daytime contact number with your message – this will be kept confidential and not used for marketing purposes.

If Steve is unable to answer your question, you can also contact MoneyHelper, a Government-backed organisation which gives free assistance on pensions to the public. It can be found here and its number is 0800 011 3797.

Steve receives many questions about state pension forecasts and COPE – the Contracted Out Pension Equivalent. If you are writing to Steve on this topic, he responds to a typical reader question here. It includes links to Steve’s several earlier columns about state pension forecasts and contracting out, which might be helpful.  

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