Annuities Overview

Most Common Usage

Long considered a CD alternative, annuities have become very popular today. Paying higher rates than CDs and deferring taxes, if you are on a fixed income you may find annuities are a better option than tying up money in CDs or letting it warehouse in a money market account. Like a CD, you can place lump sums of money in annuities. You must leave the money in the annuity for a period of years, usually between 2 and 5 years. The longer you leave the money in, the higher your interest rate will be. Depending on the annuity purchased, a yearly amount is allowed to be withdrawn without a penalty. This amount is usually around 10%.

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There are other annuity options, such as fixed payment annuities and even equity-indexed annuities. These other options are explained below.

Definition: What Is an Annuity?

An annuity is a contract between you ("annuitant") and an insurance company. You as the annuitant agree to pay the insurance company a single payment or a series of payments, and the insurance company agrees to pay you an income, starting immediately or at a later date, for a specified time period. Under current tax law, money put into an annuity grows on a tax-deferred basis until you begin receiving his accumulated fund as an income. That means that one hundred percent of your earnings are reinvested in an annuity and allowed to compound — or grow — without having to pay taxes on earnings.

How Do Annuities Work?

It's a simple contract. You give the insurance company money. In exchange, the company promises to either pay you an interest rate on your money and your money grows like a savings account, or pays you a monthly income starting after your purchase of the annuity, which lasts for a period of time. Taking monthly payments is called annuitization. You have various options when choosing annuitization. This monthly income could last for a set number of years or for the rest of your life. It may also be for the life of yourself and your spouse should you choose to do so. You, like most people, can begin receiving annuity income when you retire and continue receiving it for the rest of your life.

The money you invest in an annuity grows on a tax-deferred basis. Your annuity income is taxed as normal income when you begin receiving it (though no income tax is paid on that portion of the income that represents the money you originally paid in to your annuity). Since most people receive annuity income after they retire when they may be in a lower tax bracket, they generally pay less tax on annuity income than on income they earn while working full time. Two other important points regarding taxation:

Whether you’re in the payout or accumulation stage, any income you actually receive from an annuity is taxed as ordinary income rather than as capital gains.

If you withdraw money prior to age 59½, you may be subject to an IRS tax penalty of 10% of the accrued earnings.

How Do Annuities Differ from Life Insurance?

Life insurance pays your family cash benefits when you die. Annuities typically begin paying you an income when you retire and may continue paying you an income for as long as you live. (Most annuities stop paying money when you die; though some annuities can continue paying money to your family after your death if you select that option.)

Is an Annuity Right for Me?

In the past, annuities were considered investments only for people nearing retirement. But today, annuities can be smart investments for people of all ages. Remember, an annuity can be invested in a variety of different investment instruments, offering everything from modest to fast capital growth alternatives. The following are good uses for annuities:

You need a higher interest-rate alternative to Certificates of Deposit(CDs) and money market funds You want to make your long-term savings grow faster without current taxation. You need to save more for retirement, but you have "maxed out" your IRA and 401(k) or 403(b). You need to roll over (reinvest) existing tax-deferred savings, like pension plans. You need to guarantee yourself an income for the rest of your life. You need to guarantee yourself an income for the rest of your life and your spouse’s life.

For purchasers of a special type of annuity called an Equity Index Annuity, You want to protect your "principal" with a guaranteed rate of return while investing in the equity markets.

How Much Should I Invest in an Annuity?

How much money you put into an annuity depends upon your financial goals and the type of annuity you are purchasing. In general, a traditional annuity should be considered for its ability to build tax-deferred earnings from otherwise taxable investments such as mutual funds and CDs. An Equity Indexed Annuity should be purchased for participation in the stock markets while protecting principal from downside risk.

Other Advantages

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Beyond tax advantages, there are important reasons to invest in an annuity, especially when you consider the limitations of other types of investments. Annuities can provide:

Guaranteed income. An annuity can provide you with a guaranteed lifetime income, regardless of how long you live. No other investment instrument can provide this guarantee.

Unlimited contributions. Unlike other tax-advantaged investments, such as IRAs, you can contribute an unlimited amount of money to an annuity during the year, whether in periodic installments or a lump sum. Individual carriers may place a ceiling on the total amount you may put into an annuity without approval.

Bonus rates. Some annuities award investors with bonuses — extra interest that further increases your investment — at the end of your annuity's first year. The bonus increases the annuity's principal on which future interest will be calculated in subsequent years, thus providing a substantial boost to the ultimate value of an annuity fund.

No risk of loss ("fixed" annuities). Unlike other forms of stock or fund investments, annuities that are invested in mutual funds or are tied to the stock market performance may include minimum guarantees to limit the amount of investment risk.

No-penalty annual withdrawals. Most annuities have a provision that allows you to withdraw a certain amount per year penalty free.

No-penalty rollovers. Company pension or profit sharing plan payouts may be reinvested without incurring current taxes or penalties.

No probate in case of death, as long as you specify beneficiaries. Which means your family will find it easier and less costly to obtain the value of the annuity.

No initial sales charges ("no load") or annual fees. Annuities are generally no-load, no-fee investments, which means more of your money is actually invested than with investments where some money is used to pay an initial or annual charge.

Shelter investment earnings

If you are retired, you can use annuities to shelter investment earnings that would otherwise lead to taxation of Social Security benefits.

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