Annuities 101

An annuity is a contract between you and your insurance company that allows your earnings to grow and compound tax deferred. Tax deferral is a powerful benefit that you can use to help accumulate wealth for your retirement or meet other long-term financial goals. Variable annuities are investments subject to market risk and you may lose money, including principal investment and interest you may have earned.

The word "annuity" literally means "annual payments." An annuity has an accumulation phase as well as a payout phase. When you buy an annuity, the insurance company agrees to pay you an income for a specified period of time - either beginning immediately (an immediate annuity) or after an accumulation period ends (a deferred annuity).

In general, there are three parties to an annuity (plus the insurance company): the owner, the annuitant, and the annuitant's beneficiary.

The owner controls incidents of ownership in an annuity and has the right to the cash surrender value. The owner also can name the beneficiary, assign the policy, and make withdrawals. Often, the owner is also the annuitant.

Most importantly, the owner is the party who receives the tax benefit of the annuity during the accumulation phase of the contract. The owner does not pay annual taxes on the income earned (the tax deferral), however, the owner does pay taxes on withdrawals made during the accumulation phase. The owner is typically the person who receives the payments during the income phase.

The annuitant is the person on whose life the terms of the annuity are measured. Again, the annuitant may also be the owner. Our contracts are annuitant driven. This means that when the annuitant dies, the annuitant's beneficiary is the recipient of the death benefit.

There are two main annuity types: deferred and immediate.

With an immediate annuity, your income payments start right away. You choose whether you want income guaranteed for a specific number of years or over your lifetime. The insurance company calculates the amount of each income payment based on your purchase amount and your life expectancy.

A deferred annuity has two phases: the accumulation phase, where you let your money grow, and the payout phase, where you begin to receive scheduled payments. During accumulation, earnings grow tax-deferred until withdrawn. You decide when to take income from your annuity, and therefore, when to pay the taxes.

The payout phase begins when you withdraw income from your annuity. For most people, this is during retirement. As your needs dictate, you can take partial withdrawals, completely surrender your annuity, or convert your annuity into a stream of income payments (known as annuitization). This last option is essentially the same as buying an immediate annuity.

Fixed and variable annuities differ in the way they generate earnings and also in the amount of risk involved.

When you buy a fixed annuity, the insurance company guarantees you an interest rate for a certain period of time. At the end of this period, the insurance company will declare a renewal interest rate and another guarantee period. In addition, most fixed annuities have a minimum interest rate that is guaranteed for the life of the contract. In other words, regardless of market conditions, you will never receive less than your guaranteed percentage rate. Fixed annuities typically appeal to investors who feel more comfortable knowing exactly how much their money is earning.

With a variable annuity, you have added control over your investment dollars. You allocate your funds among a variety of investment options with objectives ranging from aggressive to conservative (insurance companies call these sub-accounts). Your investment returns are tied to the performance of the underlying investments of the sub-accounts. Variable annuities typically appeal to investors who are willing to accept a higher rate of risk in return for higher growth potential.

As an investment in securities, the principal amount and investment earnings in a variable annuity are not guaranteed and will fluctuate with the performance of the underlying investments such that when redeemed, an investor's units may be worth more or less than their original cost.

Both fixed and variable annuities offer you the wealth-building combination of compound interest and tax deferral. When your earnings are not eroding by taxes each year, they compound faster. Faster growth of your money means more spendable income for you in the long run.

Whether you're buying an immediate annuity or converting a deferred annuity into income payments, your options are essentially the same. You can choose to receive payments monthly, quarterly, semiannually or annually. You can receive a specific period of time in which to receive payments. You can choose an option that will guarantee income payments for as long as you live.

When you buy an immediate annuity or "annuitize" a deferred annuity, a portion of each payment is considered earnings and a portion is a tax-free return of your principal. You are only subject to taxes on the portion of each payment that represents earnings. Once enough payments have been made that you recover all of your tax-free principal, each additional payment will be fully taxable. There are other ways you can access the accumulated value in your annuity. For example, instead of annuitizing, you may want to take withdrawals. In that case, distributions represent taxable earnings first. After all earnings are distributed, tax-free return of principal remains.

If your annuity is inside an IRA, 401(k) or other qualified retirement plan, 100% of each payment will be subject to taxes (unless a distribution represents after-tax contributions into the plan). You should consult your tax advisor regarding your particular situation.

Most annuities allow withdrawals at least once a year (usually 10%- 15% of the accumulated value in your annuity) without a company charge. Another way to receive income from your annuity is through systematic withdrawals. A systematic withdrawal program allows you to enjoy a steady stream of income on a monthly, quarterly, semi-annual, or annual basis. Unlike annuitization, which is a permanent decision, systematic withdrawals allow you to start and/or stop your income payments as your needs dictate. You can have the amount of your payments increased or decreased-it's up to you. Systematic withdrawals give you added flexibility without giving up control of your money or your taxes. Systematic withdrawals tax your earnings first. So when all of your earnings have been exhausted, tax-free return of principal remains.

Updated 10.9.15

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