Senior Resources » 17 Essential Annuity Facts Most People Miss (Don’t Buy Until You Know These!)

17 Essential Annuity Facts Most People Miss (Don’t Buy Until You Know These!)

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In the world of retirement planning, finding a reliable source of income is like having a treasure map that leads to financial security. Among all of the options available to retirement planners and savvy investors alike, annuities continue to stand out as a noteworthy choice. But what are they, and how exactly can they play such a pivotal role in your retirement strategy? Here’s a comprehensive guide to understanding annuities and determining if they’re the right fit for you!


What is an Annuity?

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An annuity is a financial product that promises to pay you a series of payments in exchange for an initial investment. This contract, typically with an insurance company, is designed to provide a steady income stream, often for the rest of your life. Imagine it as a reverse life insurance policy; instead of paying out upon death, it pays out while you’re alive.

Types of Annuities

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Annuities offer a range of options to suit different financial goals and risk tolerances, each with unique features and benefits:

  • Fixed Annuities: These annuities provide a guaranteed payout, making them an excellent choice for those seeking a stable and predictable source of income. The guarantee comes from the insurance company, ensuring that you (the annuitant) receive a fixed amount regularly.
  • Variable Annuities: With this option, you have the opportunity to invest in a portfolio of assets, such as stocks and bonds. This is suitable for those who are willing to assume a higher level of risk for the chance of achieving higher returns. The income you eventually receive depends on the performance of the investments chosen (which is why it’s called “variable.” It’s not guaranteed).
  • Indexed Annuities: These annuities offer returns that are tied to the performance of a specific market index, such as the S&P 500. While they provide the potential for higher returns compared to fixed annuities, they also come with some downside protection, meaning there is a limit to how much you can lose.
  • Deferred Annuity: This type of annuity contract is designed for long-term savings and investment. The payments of income, whether in installments or a lump sum, are delayed until the investor decides to receive them. This delay period, known as the accumulation phase, allows the investment in the annuity to grow tax-deferred. Deferred annuities are particularly beneficial for individuals planning for retirement, as they can invest money now and benefit from the tax-deferred growth before receiving income during their retirement years.

How an Annuity Works

When you buy an annuity, you transfer the investment risk to the insurance company. Instead of managing investments yourself and facing market ups and downs, you pay the insurance company a lump sum or make periodic payments. In return, the company invests your money, assumes the risks, and guarantees you a stream of future payments.

Two Phases of an Annuity

Buying an annuity involves two main phases: accumulation and payout (or distribution).

  • Accumulation Phase: During this phase, you build up the funds for your annuity. You make payments to the insurance company, which invests them on your behalf to generate future payouts.
  • Payout (or Distribution) Phase: Once you reach a predetermined age or event (as specified in the contract), you transition to the payout phase. Here, you begin receiving regular payments from the insurance company, based on the terms of your annuity and the accumulated value. This is where you benefit from the guaranteed income stream.

10 Reasons Why Annuities Can Enhance Your Retirement Security

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Here are 10 reasons why annuities might be a valuable addition to your retirement plan:

  1. Guaranteed Lifetime Income: Annuities offer a unique feature – a guaranteed stream of income for life. This provides a strong foundation for financial stability throughout your retirement years.
  2. Tax-Deferred Growth: Unlike traditional investment accounts, contributions to annuities typically grow tax-deferred. This means you don’t pay taxes on any earnings until you start receiving payouts, allowing your money to compound faster.
  3. Risk Management: Annuities help you manage investment risk. By transferring the responsibility of managing the underlying investments to the insurance company, you gain a sense of security and protection from market fluctuations.
  4. Guaranteed Features: Many annuities offer various guarantees, including principal protection and minimum interest rates.
  5. Customization Options: Annuities come in a variety of types with different payout options. This flexibility allows you to tailor an annuity to meet your specific financial needs and goals, such as choosing when payouts begin and how much you receive.
  6. Probate Avoidance: Assets held within an annuity typically avoid probate.
  7. Triple Compounding: The combination of tax deferral and compounding interest allows your annuity to grow at an accelerated rate over time.
  8. Predictable Income Stream: Annuities offer a predictable income stream that you can rely on throughout your retirement.
  9. Lifetime Income Protection: Unlike some retirement accounts, annuities can’t be depleted.
  10. Safety Net for Retirement: They act as a safeguard against potential market downturns or unexpected expenses, ensuring you have a reliable source of income to fall back on.

Who Should Buy an Annuity?

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Annuities aren’t a universal solution, but they can be a valuable tool for specific retirement planning goals. Here’s who might find annuities particularly beneficial:

  • Retirement Planners Seeking Guaranteed Income: If you prioritize a guaranteed income stream throughout your retirement, annuities offer a unique advantage. They can provide a predictable source of income you can rely on, regardless of market conditions.
  • People Looking to Supplement Income: Annuities can work well alongside other retirement savings vehicles like Social Security and IRAs. They can add another layer of security and potentially increase your overall retirement income.
  • Retirees Concerned About Outliving Savings: The fear of outliving your savings is a common concern. Annuities offer protection against this risk by ensuring a steady stream of income for your lifetime.

Are There Disadvantages?

While annuities offer attractive benefits like guaranteed income, it’s important to understand the potential drawbacks before making a decision. Here are some key considerations:

  • Fees and Expenses: Annuities typically come with various fees, including mortality and expense fees, contract maintenance charges, and sometimes even subaccount fees. These fees can eat into your overall return and reduce the amount of money you ultimately receive.
  • Limited Liquidity: Unlike traditional investment accounts, accessing your money within an annuity can be difficult or even penalized. Many annuities impose surrender charges if you withdraw money before a certain time frame, often several years. Early withdrawal penalties can significantly reduce your initial investment.
  • Missed Market Growth: By investing in an annuity, you’re giving up the potential for higher returns that the stock market might offer.
  • Complexity: Annuities can be complex financial instruments with various features and options.
  • Interest Rate Risk: For annuities with fixed payouts, there’s a risk that interest rates may decline over time. This could result in lower payouts than you originally anticipated.
  • Not a Universal Solution: Annuities don’t necessarily fit everyone’s retirement plan. They might not be suitable for those who need short-term access to their money, have a high-risk tolerance, or prioritize maximizing investment returns.

What Happens To the Money When I Die?

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Here’s a breakdown of what happens when an annuity holder dies:

Inheritance Options

  • Beneficiary Designation: The annuity contract allows the annuitant to designate a beneficiary, typically a spouse, child, or loved one. This beneficiary inherits the remaining money in the annuity, either as a lump sum or a series of payments, depending on the chosen option.
  • Estate Beneficiary: If no beneficiary is named, the remaining balance becomes part of the annuitant’s estate and is distributed according to their will or by state law.

Impact of Annuity Type and Payout

  • Annuity Type: Different annuity types have different inheritance rules. For example, a “single life annuity” typically ends payments with the annuitant’s death. In contrast, a “joint and survivor annuity” might continue payments to a surviving spouse.
  • Payout Options: The chosen payout option also influences what happens. Some annuities offer death benefits that provide beneficiaries with a lump sum, continued periodic payments, or other distributions upon the annuitant’s passing.

What Else To Know

  • Clearly designating beneficiaries ensures the annuity proceeds are distributed according to your (the annuitant’s) wishes. This avoids potential complications and delays associated with probate.
  • Beneficiaries may be subject to income tax on the annuity proceeds they receive, especially if the annuity has grown in value.

How Annuities Are Taxed

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Annuities offer the benefit of tax-deferred growth. This means any earnings on your contributions accumulate within the annuity without being taxed until you start receiving payouts. However, the tax treatment of these payouts can differ depending on how you funded the annuity:

  • Pre-Tax Contributions (Qualified Annuities): If you use pre-tax dollars from an employer-sponsored retirement plan (like a 401(k) or IRA) to fund your annuity, it’s considered a qualified annuity. In this scenario, all your withdrawals, including both your original contributions and any earnings, will be taxed as ordinary income at your marginal tax rate when you receive them.
  • After-Tax Contributions (Non-Qualified Annuities): If you use after-tax dollars (money you’ve already paid taxes on) to purchase an annuity, it’s considered a non-qualified annuity. Here, a portion of your withdrawals will be considered a return of your principal (the money you originally contributed), which is not taxed. However, the remaining portion, which represents the earnings within the annuity, will be taxed as ordinary income. Essentially, you only pay taxes on the growth, not the money you already contributed.


  • Annuities offer tax-deferred growth, but withdrawals are eventually taxed.
  • Pre-tax contributions (qualified annuities) are taxed fully on withdrawal (both principal and earnings).
  • After-tax contributions (non-qualified annuities) are taxed only on the earnings portion of withdrawals, not the principal you contributed.
  • Consulting with an advisor can help you understand the specific tax implications of your particular annuity.

The Bottom Line on Annuities

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Annuities can be a powerful tool for building a secure and financially stable retirement. They offer the unique benefit of guaranteed income for life, alongside flexibility in payout options and potential tax advantages. However, annuities aren’t a one-size-fits-all solution. It’s important to carefully research different annuity types, understand the tax implications, and consult with a financial advisor to ensure an annuity aligns perfectly with your retirement goals and risk tolerance. By taking a thoughtful approach, annuities can play a key role in unlocking a worry-free and financially comfortable retirement!

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Originally published May 08, 2024


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