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Annuities Explained

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Note: Any reference to the word guarantee is based on the claims paying ability of the underlying insurance company

Annuities – The Pros and Cons

If you have questions about Annuities, the following will have it explained. An annuity is a contract issued by an insurance company. It is a unique financial product that provides tax deferral of interest and capital gains and the option (if funds are annuitized) of a guaranteed monthly income for life. Although annuities can serve various needs, the primary purpose of an annuity is that of a retirement vehicle for the annuitant, the person who will usually receive the annuity benefits. The annuity is an attractive retirement vehicle because the money accumulating in the annuity grows on a tax deferred basis. There are two parts to an annuity: the accumulation phase and the distribution phase.

The Accumulation Phase


  • During the accumulation phase, the fund grows tax deferred, it does not grow tax free. If the annuity was not purchased as part of a qualified retirement program such as an IRA, 401(k), TSA, or 457 plan, income taxes are paid on the earnings when money is ultimately paid out. If the annuity is part of a qualified plan the entire fund is subject to income taxes as it is withdrawn.
  • Surrender charges for early withdrawals. Most offer partial withdrawals free of surrender charges.
  • If you withdraw money from your annuity before age 59½ it is called a “premature distribution” and is subject to an additional 10% IRS penalty.
  • If a premature death should occur, the accumulated funds within the annuity are transferred to the named beneficiary, avoiding probate costs.
  • Annuities can vary by payment mode and are available as “single premium” (purchased with one-time payment) or “flexible premium” (purchased with recurring periodic payments). They also vary by timing of the annuity income and may be available as a “deferred annuity” (which means that annuity income payments are deferred until later) or as an “immediate annuity“(which means that annuity income starts immediately).
  • For fixed and indexed annuities there is safety of principal and earnings
  • A Variable products are subject to mortality and expense charges and administrative fees not typically found with other investments.


  • Fixed annuities
  • Variable annuities
  • Indexed annuities

Variable Annuities

A variable annuity has two types of accounts:

Fixed Accounts

In a fixed account, principal and interest are guaranteed by the insurance company. Interest rates are usually guaranteed for one year but can be longer.

Variable Accounts

In a variable account, the annuity owner bears the investment risk. Policy values vary directly with market performance and may result in a loss of principal and prior earnings. Earnings are tied directly to the performance of various underlying investment vehicles which are available within the variable annuity and are selected by the owner.

Variable annuities offer a guarantee that in the event of death the beneficiary will receive at least all the premiums paid less any withdrawals made no matter what the value of the account.

Fixed Annuities

In a fixed annuity, the insurance carrier:

  • Declares a current rate of interest for a specified time period. Once the time expires the company will set a new rate which may be higher or lower than the original rate.
  • Guarantees a minimum interest rate of return which is specified in the contract, and at no time may the current or renewal interest rate fall below it.
  • Guarantees the principal.

This means if the account fund is valued less than the original investment, the beneficiary will receive the original investment.

Indexed Annuities*

An Indexed Annuity has interest rates that are linked to growth in the equity market as measured by an index such as the S&P 500. The FIA owner enjoys the upside potential of equities but is not exposed to downside risk if the annuity is held to term. Subject to fixed minimum guarantees, the value of an FIA can only increase due to market growth ‐ it will never decline due to market movement. There are many variations in product design. No two of the FIAs are exactly alike, and some are very different from each other. However, all the various types fall into three general categories: annual reset, point-to-point, and annual high-water mark with look-back. The following is a simple definition of each..

Annual Reset – Also known as the annual ratchet design, the annual reset design resets the starting index point annually. It also credits index increases (interest) annually and compounds annually.

Point-to-Point – The point-to-point design measures the change in the index from the start of the term to the end of the term.

Annual High-Water Mark with Look-Back – The annual high-water mark with look-back can be viewed as a variation on the point-to-point design, except that it measures the index from the start of the term to the highest anniversary value over the term.

* Some annuities allow the insurance company to change participation rates, cap rates or spread/asset/margin fees either annual or at the start of the next contract term. If an insurance company subsequently lowers the participation rate or cap rate or increases the fees, this could adversely affect an investor’s return. Therefore, a prospective investor must carefully review his or her contract in order to examine these issues.

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