What’s An Annuity Anyway?
Different economic cycles lead to various financial products being marketed very aggressively.
Gold is a great example of that. Every time the Fed mentions loosening up the money supply, we can count on the “gold folks” to put their marketing in high gear.
Another great example of this is annuities.
Whenever the stock market experiences periods of higher than average volatility, annuities become a hot topic of conversation. Insurance companies and agents are very intelligent to use the opportunity of volatile markets to promote them.
Recently, I’ve received a host of questions on annuities.
As with any financial topic, there is a host of misinformation and what I kindly refer to as “omissions”, specifically by those who are in the business of marketing them.
So, I thought I’d take the opportunity to discuss the pros and cons so that you can independently understand and personally evaluate annuities for your own unique situation.
Before we dig in, just a few preliminary comments…
The first is that an annuity is like any other investment vehicle; they’re a tool to put in your toolbox of potential options.
They’re not a one-size-fits-all solution.
Like any investment, there has to be a very good reason why you would invest in an annuity. Hopefully, that comes after you’ve carefully and strategically designed a Retirement Blueprint™, and after understanding all the facts and ramifications first.
The second point is that, while annuities can be a great option for some to solve a specific problem, I believe they’re grossly oversold.
Given this, my goal is to help you better understand them so that you can make an educated decision for yourself.
What’s an Annuity Anyway?
Let’s begin today by first laying out what an annuity is.
An annuity is simply a savings instrument sponsored by an insurance company.
There are many different classifications and variations, so let’s tackle those first:
Immediate vs. Deferred Annuity
A deferred annuity has two phases to it:
- Accumulation: funds you deposit grow inside the annuity on a tax deferred basis until you withdraw funds.
- Withdrawal or Distribution: you choose how you’d like to withdraw funds from your annuity, either by “annuitizing” the value and receiving a guaranteed monthly payment, or by simply taking withdrawals as you see fit. (more on this in a moment)
An immediate annuity has no accumulation phase. You simply place money into the plan and begin receiving monthly income for life. If you currently receive a monthly pension from your employer, what you’re receiving payments from is typically a form of an immediate annuity that your employer has placed funds in to guarantee your monthly payment.
During the accumulation phase of a deferred annuity, there are two broad options:
Fixed Annuity: When you invest in a fixed vs. a variable annuity, what they’re referring to is the “investment” element. In the case of a fixed annuity, your deposit is credited with interest paid by the insurance company. How much interest you receive is based on the performance of the insurance company who sponsors the annuity, so in that respect, it acts like a CD at the bank. Typically, they come with a minimum guaranteed interest rate for the life of the annuity contract.
Variable Annuity: In a variable annuity, in addition to having a “fixed rate” option to choose from, you are also provided a list of subaccounts which act like mutual funds from various mutual fund companies. There are no guarantees. The performance of your plan will be based on the performance of the underlying subaccounts.
Withdrawal or Distribution Phase
During the withdrawal or distribution phase, there are also two broad options:
Random Withdrawal: When you want to begin receiving money from the plan, the first option, within a deferred annuity only, is to simply take random withdrawals subject to the deferred sales charge limitations set forth by your company. For example, within most companies, you may not withdraw the entire balance of your annuity within the first six to twelve years without paying a surrender charge. However, prior to the end of that period, many companies allow you to take a partial withdrawal without any charge.
Annuitizing (Guaranteed Monthly Payment): When you “annuitize”, you are choosing to receive a guaranteed monthly payment for a period of time, typically for life. In this case, it acts like a pension or the social security income you receive.
- Single Life: When you select the single life option, you choose to receive payments for your life only. When you pass away, even if that’s in three months, the insurance company keeps the money. However, if you live to be 156 years old, the insurance company must continue to pay you the guaranteed monthly check.
- Joint and Survivor or Period Certain: If you have a spouse who you want to protect, or if the prospect of passing away too soon and having the insurance company keep your funds is a problem for you, you may select a joint and survivor or period certain plan. By doing so, you guarantee payments to your beneficiary either for life or for a certain period of time after your death. However, in order to compensate the insurance company for this added risk, you receive a smaller monthly payment while you’re living.
Now that we have the basics down, we’ll continue with a discussion of the pros and cons of using annuities so that you can evaluate them for your own use.