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What is an Annuity?

An annuity is a financial product sold by insurance companies that provides a stream of payments over a specified period. It's typically used as an income stream for retirees.

There are numerous types of annuities, each with its unique set of features. Broadly speaking, they can be categorized into Immediate and Deferred Annuities and Fixed, Variable, and Indexed Annuities.

How Annuities Work

Annuities work on a simple principle: you invest (a lump sum or a series of payments), and in return, the insurer makes periodic payments to you, starting either immediately or at some future date.

Why Invest in Annuities?

Annuities are popular for several reasons. They offer financial security and a guaranteed income stream, often for life. This makes them an attractive option for individuals worried about outliving their savings.

Additionally, money invested in an annuity grows tax-deferred. This means you won't pay taxes on the earnings until you withdraw them, allowing more money to compound and grow.

How Do Annuities Work?

An annuity contract involves two main phases: the Accumulation Phase and the Distribution or Annuity Phase.

During the Accumulation Phase, you make a lump-sum payment or series of payments to the insurance company. The insurer then invests this money, and it grows tax-deferred until withdrawal.

The Distribution Phase begins when you start receiving payments. The timing and amount of these payments depend on the specifics of your annuity contract.

What are the Different Types of Annuities?

Annuities come in several forms, each with its own benefits and drawbacks. The most common types are:

Immediate Annuities

An immediate annuity is a contract between you and an insurance company, where you make a single lump-sum payment, and in return, the insurer promises to make payments to you for a specified period or for the rest of your life. These payments start almost immediately, typically within a year after purchase.

Immediate annuities are commonly used to provide a steady income stream during retirement. They are suitable for individuals who want to convert a large sum of cash into a consistent, guaranteed set of payments.

Deferred Annuities

A deferred annuity, unlike an immediate annuity, doesn't start paying out immediately. Instead, it allows your money to grow for a specified period (the accumulation phase) before the payments to you start. This period can last several years, allowing your investment to potentially grow significantly over time.

Deferred annuities can be a smart choice if you're still some years away from retirement and want to grow your savings tax-deferred.

Fixed Annuities

In a fixed annuity, the insurance company guarantees a minimum rate of interest on your money, along with a fixed amount of periodic payments. These payments are determined at the start of the annuity and do not fluctuate. This feature can be particularly appealing to risk-averse individuals seeking stable, predictable income.

Variable Annuities

Variable annuities provide a rate of return that varies based on the performance of investment options, known as sub-accounts, chosen by the annuity owner. These sub-accounts typically consist of a mix of stocks, bonds, and money market instruments.

While variable annuities offer the potential for higher returns compared to fixed annuities, they also come with a higher risk. The income you receive may vary depending on how well the investments perform.

Indexed Annuities

An indexed annuity offers a return based on a particular equity index, such as the S&P 500. Indexed annuities provide a minimum guaranteed interest rate combined with an interest rate linked to a market index.

Because of the guaranteed minimum, indexed annuities have less market risk than variable annuities. However, they're more complex and might not be suitable for everyone.

How to Choose an Annuity?

Choosing an annuity requires careful consideration. Factors to consider include your financial goals, risk tolerance, the financial strength of the insurance company, fees, and withdrawal penalties.

It's essential to compare annuities with other retirement options to ensure you're making the best choice for your financial future.

What are the Pros and Cons of Annuities?

Like all financial products, annuities come with pros and cons.

Advantages of Annuities

Guaranteed Income

One of the most significant advantages of an annuity is the guarantee of income for life or a specified period. This can be particularly valuable in retirement plans, providing a steady income stream regardless of market conditions.

Tax-Deferred Growth

Annuities offer tax-deferred growth. This means the money invested in the annuity can grow without being taxed until withdrawal. This allows your money to compound and grow faster than it might in a taxable account.

Protection from Creditors

In many states, annuities are protected from creditors. This can be an important consideration for business owners and professionals who may face liability issues.

Variety of Investment Options

Variable and indexed annuities offer a range of investment options, allowing investors to diversify their portfolios and potentially earn higher returns.

Disadvantages of Annuities

High Fees

Annuities can come with high fees and charges. These may include mortality and expense risk charges, administrative fees, underlying fund expenses, and charges for special features or riders. These fees can eat into your returns over time.

Limited Access to Funds

Most annuities have a surrender period. If you withdraw funds before this period ends (typically within 5 to 7 years of purchase), you may have to pay a surrender charge. This can limit your flexibility if you need access to your funds earlier.


Annuities can be complex and difficult to understand, especially variable and indexed annuities. This complexity can make it challenging for investors to fully understand what they're investing in and the associated risks.

Potential for Loss

While fixed annuities provide a guaranteed return, variable and indexed annuities carry a risk. If the investments in the annuity perform poorly, you could potentially lose money.

Before investing in annuities, it's essential to weigh these pros and cons and consider seeking advice from a financial advisor to ensure it aligns with your financial goals and risk tolerance.

How are Annuities Taxed?

Annuities offer tax-deferred growth, meaning you don't pay taxes on the interest, dividends, or capital gains accumulating in your annuity until you begin making withdrawals. However, when you start taking money out, the amount will be taxed as ordinary income. You can learn more about the tax treatment of annuities from the IRS.

What Happens to An Annuity After the Death of the Owner?

If an annuity owner dies, the contract may allow for a spouse or other beneficiary to continue receiving payments. However, the specific rules and any potential tax consequences depend on the type of annuity and the contract's details.

Annuities are complex financial products, and this guide only scratches the surface. As always, it's crucial to seek guidance from a financial advisor before purchasing an annuity to ensure it aligns with your long-term financial goals.


Related: 401(a)