The Basics of Annuities

Dissecting how annuities work, whether you should buy one, and what kind to buy is no easy task. Here's how you can cut through the complexity of annuities to determine whether they are the right long-term product for you.

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An annuity is a retirement-planning tool that has two phases: the accumulation phase and the annuitization phase. In the accumulation phase, you give money to an insurance or investment company over a period of time or in a lump sum, and it earns a rate of return. In the annuitization phase, you begin to withdraw regular payments (such as monthly or annually) from your contract until you die.

An annuity has a death benefit, although it is not like one found in a life insurance policy. If you die before you annuitize, your beneficiary will receive either the current value of your annuity or the amount you have paid into it, whichever is greater. For example, if you die when your investments are performing poorly and your account value is less than what you have paid in, your beneficiary would receive the amount you paid in.

Once you begin to receive monthly payments, you no longer have a death benefit on your contract. For example, if you annuitize at age 65 and die at age 67, the insurance company keeps your money in your contract. However, you can buy "term certain" annuities, which guarantee that either you or your beneficiary will receive payments for a certain period of time, such as 10 to 15 years. For example, if you died three years after you began receiving payments from a 10-year term certain annuity, your beneficiary would still receive payments for the next seven years.

The money in your annuity grows tax-deferred, meaning that the money is not taxable until you begin to receive payments from your annuity. Once you receive payments, your gains are taxed at your ordinary income tax rate. If you die before you annuitize, your beneficiary pays taxes on the death benefit. In either case, the person who receives the money (the annuity holder or your beneficiary) is taxed at his or her ordinary income tax rate.

The ideal annuity buyer is 55 or older. Annuities are less attractive to younger investors because there is a 10 percent penalty tax if you withdraw money from your annuity before age 59½ for reasons other than death or disability. However, if you have already retired and need annuity income right away, opt for immediate annuities, which skip the accumulation phase and begin to issue payments as soon as you invest in the contract.

If you have already contributed the maximum amount to your existing tax-deferred retirement plan, such as a 401(k), 403(b), or IRA, you are the ideal annuity buyer. That's because you are already building up tax-deferred money in those plans, and the fees associated with those savings vehicles usually are much lower than those of annuities.

Three types of annuities

There are three kinds of annuities and each differs in how the money in your contract is invested.

Fixed annuity

The money you invest earns a fixed rate of interest that is guaranteed by the insurance company. The upside is that there is no risk involved. The downside is that you will miss out on any gains you could have made if the stock market performs well. When you annuitize, your payments are also fixed.

Variable annuity

Your money is placed in investment options known as subaccounts, which are similar to mutual funds. Each subaccount has its own degree of risk, ranging from aggressive growth funds to bond funds. The upside is that you have the opportunity to make substantial gains, depending on the performance of your investment. The downside is that you will lose money if your investments perform poorly. Another VA downside: It may cost you to switch your money among subaccounts. When you annuitize, your payments fluctuate depending on the performance of your investments. Some VAs allow "fixed annuitization," in which you receive fixed payments. The insurance or investment company recalculates your payments each year based on the performance of your investments.

Equity-indexed annuity

Your money is invested in a fixed account and you may earn additional interest based on the performance of a particular stock index, such as the Standard & Poor's 500 Index, the Dow Jones Industrial Average, the NASDAQ Composite Index, or the Russell 2000 Index. The upside is that you get the best of both worlds - the opportunity to earn money based on stock performance and the stability of a fixed account. The downside is that you still essentially have a fixed annuity, and the gains you can make in the contract due to the performance of the stock index are fairly small. When you annuitize, your payments are fixed.

Surrendering Your Contract

If you buy an annuity and then decide you want to get out of the contract, you can surrender your annuity. Most companies charge you a surrender fee if you decide to get out your annuity within the first seven to eight years of owning it. The shorter amount of time you are in the annuity, the more you'll pay in surrender fees. For example, if your annuity has a seven-year surrender period, and you surrender your annuity in the first year, you may pay 7 percent of the value of your investment to the company. If you surrender in the second year, you may pay 6 percent, and so on.

If you want to switch one annuity for another, you can do so without paying taxes. Exchanging one contract for another is known as a 1035 exchange (named after Section 1035 of the federal tax code). In a 1035 exchange, you can exchange a life insurance policy for another life insurance policy, an annuity for another annuity, or a life insurance policy for an annuity without paying taxes. However, you cannot exchange an annuity for a life insurance policy without paying taxes on the gains in your contract.

If you need to tap into your money before the surrender period, some insurers will allow you to access a small percentage of your investment, about 10 to 15 percent, under certain circumstances, such as serious illness or disability. After the surrender period, you can withdraw as much out of your annuity as you want. However, if you take out that money before age 59½, it is subject to 10 percent penalty tax.

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Shopping Tips

If you decide to shop for an annuity, here are some things to consider:

  1. Figure out how much you have accumulated in other tax-deferred savings plans or pensions. Determine if there is a possibility that you could outlive your retirement assets.
  2. Determine what kind of annuity you want. Do you want your investment to be steady and guaranteed? Then you may want to consider a fixed annuity. Are you willing to ride out the highs and lows of the stock market in the hopes of making more money? Then you may want to opt for a variable annuity.
  3. Estimate how long you plan to have your money in the contract. On most annuities, you will pay hefty surrender fees if you surrender during the first seven to eight years on your contract. You also must have your money in the contract for a long time in order to have the tax deferral justify the high fees. According to Morningstar, on average it takes 10 to 15 years of tax-deferral to justify owning a variable annuity instead of a mutual fund.
  4. Consider the financial strength of the provider. Most, though not all, states will protect you from the insolvency of an annuity provider through "guarantee associations" or "guarantee funds" but there are limits to that protection - in most states a limit of $100,000 for the current value of the annuity.

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