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Annuities for Retirees: What to Consider Before You Invest

Annuities can be purchased directly from an insurance company or from other financial institutions (including banks) that act on behalf of the insurance company. In exchange for your investment, the insurer agrees to make periodic payments for a set time period. It’s important to remember that some annuities may lose value. These products are not insured by the FDIC or the FDIC-insured bank or savings institution that may offer them.

There are different types of annuities. A “fixed annuity” provides a fixed payment, often monthly, until the investor dies. It typically guarantees no loss of principal (the amount invested). A “variable annuity” also guarantees payment for a set period, but the payment amounts will fluctuate based on the market performance of the investment option you choose. With a variable annuity, you also risk losing principal as well as earnings, although some variable annuities guarantee the return of your initial investment for an additional fee.

If the income payments are deferred to some later date, the annuity is typically described as a “deferred annuity.” If the payments begin immediately and continue for life, the annuity may be referred to as an “immediate life annuity.”

On the plus side, annuities provide another investment option if you’ve reached your contribution limit on your other retirement accounts, such as 401(k) plans. And, at retirement, the guaranteed payments can provide extra income. But, as with any investment, be aware of the potential pitfalls and make an informed decision.

Know the key features and costs of the product and make sure they fit your needs. Read the literature to understand the most important facts and risks, including the potential for loss, if any.

“A sales representative who talks to you about purchasing an annuity is required by federal law to ask you questions about your investment goals, current finances and future retirement plans,” said Kara Ritchie, an FDIC Policy Analyst who specializes in consumer issues. “If the representative doesn’t discuss whether the product is suitable for your needs and goals, take your business elsewhere.”

Experts generally say that annuities with guaranteed principal and income are more suitable for older investors than annuities that may, through market performance, lose value. The latter include variable-rate, deferred-payment annuities and equity-indexed annuities (those tied to the stock market), which might not make sense for many investors close to or in retirement.

Also, before you sign a contract, make sure you understand the cost of getting your money back early. Many investors with variable annuities are surprised to learn that they must pay hefty “surrender charges” if they try to withdraw money early, cancel their contract, or replace an existing annuity with a new one.

Deal only with a competent, reputable sales representative. Most annuity sales representatives are trained professionals. However, there have been reports of sales representatives who have been poorly informed or have used false or misleading tactics to sell annuities. How can you improve your chances of getting good advice?

Work with a sales representative licensed by your state government’s insurance regulator. If the sales representative offers variable annuities, he or she also must be licensed to sell securities. For information on whether a sales representative is properly licensed or has a history of disciplinary problems, contact your state securities regulator and the National Association of Securities Dealers, a self-regulatory group for the securities industry.

“Annuities are generally sold on a commission basis, so it’s important to find a sales representative who puts your interests ahead of his or her own,” added Ritchie.

Proceed carefully before replacing an existing annuity with a new one. A sales representative may suggest investing in a new annuity paying a higher return or replacing a deferred annuity with an immediate life annuity to provide monthly income now instead of later. These actions may make sense for some people. However, it can be expensive to change annuities. Make sure you consider the contract terms as well as early withdrawal penalties and other charges prior to making a change.

What if, soon after purchasing an annuity, you have “buyer’s remorse” or find another annuity with better terms? Your annuity may have a “free look” period during which you can cancel without penalty. If yours doesn’t and you still want to cancel, determine all the surrender charges and penalties and proceed with caution.

Introduction to annuities

Those with fixed incomes or living on their retirement savings are often looking for a safe, low risk place to invest their money. They will often turn to annuities, which are sold through insurance companies. Basically, an annuity is a contract between you and the insurance company that provided for tax-deferred earnings.

There are several insurance guarantees that come with annuities, including the option to “annuitize,” or turn the principal into a lifetime stream of income. However, the fees are often quite high, and the earnings are taxed as ordinary income, not long-term capital gain.

The FDIC does not insure annuities, even if they are sold through a bank. The safety of your principal depends on the financial strength of the annuity provider. If the company fails, you might have $100,000 of coverage by your state’s guaranty association. But these associations operate under state law and vary on what they cover and how much they pay.

Fixed-rate annuities

With a fixed-rate annuity, you pay the insurance company a certain amount of money. The insurance company then guarantees you a certain periodic payment for the life of the annuity. This is often a way to se up a lifetime stream of income. The insurance company’s goal is to invest your deposit and make more money than they have promised to pay you.

There are often higher interest rates on annuities than on CDs. But fixed rate doesn’t mean the same thing for annuities as it does for a CD. With a CD, the rate is fixed for the full term of the CD. Fixed-rate annuities do not have a maturity date. The rate is usually only guaranteed for the first year. The rate will then drop after the guaranteed period, and then be adjusted annually.

There may be penalties charged if you withdraw money during the penalty period. You may have to pay an 8% penalty if you withdraw money during the first year. After that, the penalty is usually decreased by 1% each year.

Annuities have tax-deferred features, so if you withdraw money before the age of 59, you may have to pay a hefty 10% penalty to the IRS. The earnings on annuities are taxed as ordinary income by the IRS no matter how long you have invested.

Variable annuities

Variable annuities offer investors unique features, but they are quite complicated. They combine the elements of life insurance, mutual funds and tax-deferred savings planes. When you invest in a variable annuity, you select from a list of mutual funds to place your investment dollars. Your options may include balanced mutual funds, money market funds and several international funds.

Variable annuities have tax-deferred benefits, and they have income guarantees that you don’t find in other investments. For example, for a fee, your variable annuity will pay a death benefit.

Let’s look at how this works. You invest $100,000 in a variable annuity. In a few years, the value of the mutual funds in your account has fallen to $75,000. If this was a straight mutual fund, your heirs would only receive the $75,000. With this annuity, your beneficiaries are guaranteed the $100,000 if you pass away. If you have opted for the death benefits, the market value of the annuity may be as much as $125,000. Your beneficiaries would receive this amount.

Taxes are imposed in the same manner as for fixed-rate annuities. The earnings are taxed as ordinary income. You do not want to use the annuities inside of your 401(k) or IRA. These plans are built for accumulating money on a tax-deferred basis. You don’t want to pay the higher costs of an annuity when you can invest in a mutual fund that benefits you at less tax expense.

There are instances when variables are a good fit. If you’ve already reached the limit on your other retirement savings vehicles, you might investigate a variable annuity. You aren’t limited in the amount you can invest in an annuity. Many allow you to convert your investment to an annual income stream, for a slight fee. The insurance company will guarantee that you will receive income payments for a certain period or for life.

CD-type annuities

A CD annuity is a fixed-rate annuity with a guaranteed rate that matches the penalty period. For example, you buy a five-year CD annuity at 4%. If you hold the CD for five years, then you will receive the 4% annually. If rates rise, you are already locked in at the lower rate.

Insurance companies developed CD annuities to help prevent insurers from making empty promises to continue to pay a high interest rate after the guaranteed period. Rates were falling, and customers were not getting what they expected. Customers began to pay a penalty to get out of the investment.

There are usually higher interest rates offered on CD annuities than on traditional CDs. The investment is tax-deferred, but if you cash out your five-year CD before the age of 59, you will pay a 10% penalty on the gain to the IRS. Many contracts will allow you to take up to 10% of the balance or up to 100% of the interest annually without any insurance company penalties charged.

The surrender charges for a CD-type annuity are like those of fixed-rate annuities. There is no FDIC coverage on the investment. Some CD annuities have escape clauses in which the company penalty is waived if the customer allows the payments to be made over a five-year period or longer.

15 Things You Need to Know About Annuities

Guaranteed income streams are becoming more attractive as crushed dreams and investments become the retirement nightmare for most people. With some annuities, you can get this guarantee. 

Annuities come in different types. You need to be educated before you commit your money. So here is a guide. 

Annuity: Definition

It can be defined as a contract between an insurance company and a consumer (you) to cover certain goals. The goals could be long-term care expenses, legacy planning, lifetime income or principal protection. 

An annuity is not an investment, even though some insurers market is as such. It is a contract. Breaking the contract is almost impossible. 

Why an Annuity?

Many people buy annuities to get a guaranteed source of income. That is why they are popular in retirement planning. There is no contribution limit and you can save as much as you want. 

How Does It Work? 

In simple terms, an annuity transfers risk to the insurer from the owner (annuitant). You then pay the company premiums. These premiums can either be paid in a series of installments or a single lump sum. 

The payments are not indefinite. After some time, you stop paying and get paid instead. All annuities are not the same. Some pay you for as long as you live, and when you pass a way at a defined time frame, your beneficiary will be paid the remainder. 

Different Types of Annuities

Annuities are divided into two categories: immediate and deferred. 

With an immediate annuity, the income begins almost immediately. It, however, won’t come right away. After you pay the lump sum, you start receiving income after one annuity period. It could be a year or one month. 

A deferred annuity offers a lifetime income and tax-advantaged saving. The payments begin years later. 

Principal Protection with Fixed Annuity

The series of payments and minimum rate of return are fixed with this type of annuity, but under predetermined conditions. 

Early Withdrawal Penalties

If you choose to withdraw your funds before the specified time, you may incur surrender charges. The charges usually reduce with time.

Investment Risk in a Variable Annuity

The insurer invests your money in different sub accounts if you choose a variable annuity. The rate of return will depend on how these subaccounts perform. 

Annuities and Tax

Just as with an IRA or 401(k), you pay taxes when you withdraw the money. The tax depends on whether you funded the annuity with after-tax or pre tax dollars. 

Annuity Fees

Variable annuities have annual fees but most other types don’t. All of them, however, have commissions. 

Indexed Annuities

Contrary to how they are marketed, fixed indexed annuities are complicated and they have limited protection and potential. 

Riders for Extra Benefits

Riders can enhance the long-term care provisions, legacy or income—but at a cost. They can either be living riders or death benefit riders. 

Early Death

If you die earlier than expected, the insurance company won’t keep your premiums. 

Guarantees

Annuity payments are guaranteed by the insurance company, not the government. So the insurer’s financial strength matters. 

Annuitize Gradually

Annuities present an opportunity cost risk. That is why you need to annuitize gradually instead of paying your premium as a lump sum. 

Annuities Are Not for Everyone

People who don’t expect to reach their life expectancy or run out of income don’t require an annuity. 

Americans hear a lot about the shaky outlook for Social Security. In the future, the federal program likely will play a smaller overall role in Americans’ retirement plans.

One way to fill in the gaps of a savings portfolio is to put money in annuities. With an annuity, you pay a premium in exchange for guaranteed income payments at regular intervals. It is most often used for retirement purposes.

The basic types of annuities are equity indexed, fixed rate and variable. The major advantage of annuities is that they all guarantee benefits such as tax-free growth, the ability to pass money directly to heirs or charities and an income stream for life.

Over the past few years, equity-indexed annuities have gained a great deal of popularity. They offer interest or benefits that are linked to an external equity reference – a stock index like the S&P 500, for example. But you get a guaranteed minimum return in exchange for a limited maximum return; that is, you get less upside, but also less downside, to your stock-market investing. Your principal is never at risk.

Fixed-rate annuities, on the other hand, guarantee an interest rate and a declared minimum. They have traditionally been the most popular annuities.

Variable annuities provide more options. They enable you to invest in stock, bonds, mutual funds and money-market instruments.

Reputable financial companies, like TrueYield Financial, want to make sure investors are comfortable when purchasing annuities. Here are some tips for the potential investor.

* Be sure the firm you work with is not limited to offering just one company’s annuities. There are many options available, so work with an agent that can get the one that best fits your needs.

* Understand what you are buying. Talk to your financial adviser or agent about which annuity may be right for your retirement portfolio. Fully understand the annuity contract you are considering.

* Define your goals. Annuities can be used to accomplish several financial goals. For example, they can supplement your monthly income or provide emergency funds. Decide which purpose your annuity will serve.

* Ask your agent if you have a “free look” period to review your annuity contract and make sure you have made the right decision.

* Investigate whether a bonus annuity is right for you. Bonus annuities credit premium bonuses to allow a retirement saver to make up for stock market loss or to provide an immediate boost to the account value.