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Understanding Annuities

There are several reasons people buy an annuity, the biggest reason is that it can provide guaranteed income for life.

Annuities can also help you grow your money tax deferred, unlike a savings account or CD. Many fixed index annuity contracts now offer income riders that can provide returns as high as 8% and can be turned into a series of payments that provide lifetime retirement income. But is an income annuity really right for you?

What is an Annuity?

An annuity is a contract between an individual and an insurance company (typically a life insurance company). In return for one or more contributions, you can begin receiving annuity income right away, or you can set it up to begin in the future.

Not all annuities are exactly the same, though. For instance, there are immediate and deferred annuities, as well as fixed, indexed, and variable annuities. These insurance products can provide you with fixed income for a set period of time, or payments that last for the remainder of your life. So, it is important that you have a good understanding of how these financial vehicles work, and how they may or may not be a good fit in your overall retirement planning.

How Does an Annuity Work?

While most annuities are structured in a similar manner, there is actually a wide variety to choose from based on your short- and long-term objectives, as well as your risk tolerance and time until retirement (or whenever you would like the payout to begin).

Immediate versus Deferred Annuities

In addition to being fixed, indexed, or variable, annuities can be immediate or deferred. With an immediate annuity, you contribute one single lump sum payment, and the payouts begin right away (or within 12 months).

A deferred annuity doesn’t start paying income until a time in the future. While you wait – or during the “accumulation” period – you can typically make multiple contributions, and the money in the account is deferred from tax until it is accessed later on.

Qualified versus Non-Qualified Annuities

Annuities can be qualified or not-qualified – and the amount of income tax you owe on your annuity payments can vary depending on which type of annuity you have. The qualified version is usually funded with money that comes from an IRA (Individual Retirement Account) and/or employer-sponsored retirement plan such as a 401(k).

Because neither the contributions nor the growth on your IRA or 401(k) has been subject to taxation, though, 100% of the payouts from qualified annuities are taxable as income at your then-current rate.

Non-qualified annuities are typically funded with after-tax funds. Therefore, because the growth is tax-deferred, the income and withdrawals will be partially taxable. In this case, each payment includes a portion of taxable income and a portion of non-taxable income. The percentage of the non-taxed portion is referred to as the exclusion ratio.

Annuity Income and Withdrawal Options

There are many different ways that you can access funds from an annuity. One option is to take one single lump sum. Going this route, however, could result in a significant tax obligation for the year in which you make the withdrawal.

Alternatively, you could instead choose to receive income for a stated period of time, such as 10 or 20 years, or even for the remainder of your lifetime. Going with this latter option can help you to alleviate the concern about running out of money while you still need it in retirement.

Other Annuity Features

In addition to tax-advantaged growth and reliable income payouts, fixed and variable annuities may offer some added features, as well, such as income rider(s) and/or penalty-free access to your funds in certain situations.

If the annuitant (i.e., income recipient) dies before he or she receives back all of their contributions from the contract value, a death benefit may be paid to a named beneficiary. Unlike the receipt of life insurance proceeds, though, this may be taxable to the recipient.

There are various riders that could be added to an annuity contract. These could provide benefits like return of premium and/or a guaranteed amount of income. Some riders can be attached at no additional charge, while others could retire the payment of additional premium.

If the annuitant requires long-term care, he or she may be able to access funds from the account penalty-free, even during the surrender charge period. With this rider, it may be necessary for the annuitant to be in a nursing home for at least 90 consecutive days.

A chronic or terminal illness waiver also allows the annuitant access to funds without a surrender fee, provided that he or she is diagnosed with such an illness (and that the diagnosis is verified by a medical professional).

How to Fund an Annuity

Depending on the specific annuity, you could make contributions from different sources. These may include:

  • Personal savings
  • Employer-sponsored retirement plan
  • IRA (Individual Retirement Account) rollover

Personal Savings

Personal savings are typically contributed to non-qualified annuities. The funds that are placed in the account can be accessed tax-free, while the gain that is withdrawn will be taxed as ordinary income.

Retirement Plan / IRA Rollover

When reaching retirement, many people will roll over money that they have in an employer-sponsored plan (such as a 401k) and/or IRA. If these funds come from traditional plans, 100% of the income or withdrawal will be taxed as ordinary income to the recipient.

Annuity Charges and Fees

Like most other financial vehicles, you could be subject to charges and fees with an annuity. Many fixed and fixed indexed products NOT are overly “expensive” for investors.

However, because of the underlying investments (which usually charge management fees), variable annuities have a reputation for being somewhat expensive.


Oftentimes, an agent or broker commission is charged on the purchase of a variable annuity. Depending on the insurance company that offers the annuity, this could take a significant portion of your contribution. Fixed annuities do not have such charges.

Rider Charges

If you decide to add any additional features, or riders, to an annuity, it may cost you an additional amount of premium. So, prior to committing to these add-ons, it is important to ensure that the added cost will really be worth it.

Surrender Charges

Most annuities include surrender charges. These will be incurred if you cancel the contract before a certain time frame has elapsed. Likewise, even though you are usually allowed to access some money from an annuity at any given time, if you take more than the maximum in a given year, a surrender charge will also be levied.

The amount of the surrender charge will typically be reduced over time, until it eventually reaches 0%. At that time, you can access the funds in the account penalty-free. In addition to the surrender fee, you may also have to pay an additional 10% “early withdrawal” charge to the federal government / IRS if you withdraw from the annuity before you reach age 59 1/2.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Owning an Annuity

Even though annuities offer some attractive benefits, these financial vehicles can have both pros and cons. So, it is recommended that you consider both before you purchase one.

Some of the key advantages include:

  • Regular guaranteed income stream
  • Tax-deferred growth
  • Protection of principal (with fixed and fixed indexed annuities)

On the other hand, some annuity drawbacks can be:

  • Surrender charges / lack of liquidity
  • Fees (primarily on variable annuities)
  • Possibly IRS early withdrawal penalty if you access funds in the contract before age 59 1/2

Items to Consider Before You Buy an Annuity

Prior to purchasing any financial product, you should ideally determine whether or not it is really right for you. As it pertains to annuities, some of the key considerations would be:

  • Your age
  • How long the rate of interest is guaranteed (with a fixed annuity)
  • Anticipated life expectancy
  • Income requirements (and the amount of guaranteed income payments you could receive from an annuity)
  • Risk tolerance
  • Whether or not the annuity provides a guaranteed minimum return
  • How much of the annuity payout will be subject to income tax
  • Underlying investment options (with indexed and variable annuities)
  • Number of purchase payments you plan to make (one lump sum or multiple payments over time)
  • When you plan to start receiving your retirement income payments from the contract
  • How long you would be receiving payments from the annuity
  • Whether or not the annuity offers a guaranteed rate of return
  • Anticipated retirement date
  • How much of your retirement savings you plan to contribute
  • Whether you are focused more on receiving guaranteed income for life, or making a tax-advantaged investment (some annuities may provide you with both)
  • Financial strength and claims paying ability of the offering insurance company (you can check the ratings for the issuing insurance company by A.M. Best, Standard & Poor’s, Fitch, and/or Moody’s Investor Services)

How to Find the Right Annuity for You?

Annuities can be somewhat complex – and there are many insurance companies in the marketplace that offer these products. So, before buying an annuity, it is a good idea to discuss your objectives, as well as your potential options, with a specialist in retirement income planning. That way, you can have all of your questions answered before moving forward.

Work with an Independent Annuity Specialist

Independent annuity agent or an Insurance Geek can go out into the marketplace and find the highest fixed annuity rates by comparing products from different insurance companies, rather than trying to “sell” you on the limited options from one insurance carrier.

This means that as an independent advisor we can also review the claims paying ability of many insurance carriers, and go with an insurance company that has a positive reputation.

At Insurance Geek, we have access to more than 30 of the top-rated insurers in the industry. So, we can work to customize the very best annuity for you. Feel free to contact us if you have any questions or if you would like to receive a fast and convenient annuity quote. We look forward to assisting you.

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