For Some Retirees, This Annuity Makes Sense
This article appears at the following website: forbes.com
We’ve talked about a number of different types of annuities in our previous columns. We discussed nonqualified deferred variable annuities in the first and second columns in this series on annuities. We covered qualified deferred variable annuities in our third column, and in our fourth column we talked about fixed deferred annuities.
Based on these previous columns, you might be getting the feeling that Bogleheads are against all types of annuities, but you’d be wrong. We’re against high-cost annuities that trap investors into substandard investments for long periods of time using often-hidden surrender periods and the associated high surrender fees. We’re also against annuities that are sold by unscrupulous salespersons who sometimes “hoodwink” (often older) investors into investing with them by providing false or misleading information about the annuity products they’re selling.
However, despite all the negatives and cautions we’ve mentioned in our previous columns, we do feel that annuities can be appropriate in certain situations. In earlier columns we listed some situations where a low-cost variable annuity may make sense in both non-qualified and qualified situations.
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In this column, we’ll talk about another type of annuity which could play a role in some retirees’ overall investment planning, and that’s a single premium immediate annuity or SPIA.
A single premium immediate annuity offers an income stream that will last as long as the annuitant (or joint annuitant, if that option is selected) lives or for a predetermined period, depending on the option selected at the time of purchase. The fixed immediate annuities include nominal, graded and inflation-adjusted payment options. There is also a variable option in which the payout is determined by the returns on the investments chosen by the investor.
In exchange for these payments, the annuitant surrenders a specific amount of money to the insurance company. These payments can be based on a single or joint life. Normally this purchase is irrevocable, and the money used to make the SPIA purchase is not available to one’s heirs, even if the annuitant dies shortly after purchasing the annuity, unless a predetermined payment period was selected. However, selecting one of the available term-certain payment options will result in lower payments.
An SPIA is probably one of the easiest annuity products to understand. You give the life insurance company a specific sum of money in exchange for an income stream that you can’t outlive. The SPIA can offer peace of mind in bridging income shortages. For example, if a retired couple needs $4,000 per month to cover their living expenses, and Social Security and pensions provide $3,000 per month, they could purchase an SPIA that would pay out the needed $1,000 per month for as long as either one of them lived. However, they would need to keep in mind that most annuity payments aren’t indexed for inflation, so over the long term, the spending power of that $1,000 would decrease.
Should the couple choose to purchase one of the few inflation-indexed SPIAs available, they’d have to either pay a higher premium or receive a lower initial payment. And since inflation-indexed annuities are only offered by a few insurance companies, there’s not a lot of competition to help make those rates attractive for the annuitant. Finally, it’s important to remember that the return of your principal is included in the promised payment stream.
An SPIA can also provide a “bridge” that could allow an investor to delay taking Social Security until later in life. Doing so could mean larger Social Security payments to both the recipient and his/her spouse. Boglehead Ron explained his use of an SPIA this way: “In our case, we used it as gap insurance since I retired at 59 but will not claim SS till age 70 (primarily for the benefit of my wife).”
Using a period-certain SPIA as a bridge to Social Security may be a valid strategy for some folks like Ron. However, for many relatively young retirees, the period-certain option is probably not the best choice. Remember, the insurance company has to plan to pay for the rest of your longer-expected life, so that means you’ll receive lower payments. In addition, because of the longer expected payout period, you magnify default and inflation risks since the insurance company has to remain solvent for a very long period of time and inflation will almost surely erode the yield over those longer periods. As an alternative to taking the inflation-indexed option, consider purchasing TIPs at the Treasury auctions and holding them to maturity, since TIPS both preserve capital and protect against inflation.
In another recent Bogleheads.org forum post, author and forum leader Taylor Larimore listed a number of valid reasons why he and his wife, Pat, purchased an SPIA. He stated that “The primary reason we bought our lifetime annuities was so that we could give our heirs their inheritance while we’re living. The annuities assure us (and them) that we will not run out of money no matter how long we live.” Taylor then went on to list a number of other reasons that he and Pat considered important in their decision to annuitize a portion of their savings:
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1. “Our annuities give us a guaranteed income of approximately 10% of premium (using interest and principal). This is more than we could get from any other safe investment."
2. “Our annuities immediately reduced our estate for tax purposes and offered protection from lawsuits."
3.“It was very comforting to have a steady income and protection of principal during the recent bear market."
4. “Our annuity income is only partially taxable."
5. “It will be much easier for survivors to not worry about this part of our portfolio.”
Here are some situations where an SPIA may make sense:
1. For someone who is in good health and has a family history of longevity.
2. For folks who are afraid of running out of money before running out of breath.
3. For investors who don’t know how to properly manage their assets or who don’t care to do so.
4. For an investor who is concerned about a surviving spouse who has no knowledge of, or interest in, investing.
5. For people who have no heirs or who have no desire to leave the funds used to purchase the annuity as part of their estate.
There is no one rule that covers every situation or every investor. However, if one or more of the above situations apply to you, then there’s a good possibility that an SPIA may be appropriate for you.