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Annuity: What is an Annuity

Annuities

Annuities are insurance contracts that provide a fixed income stream for a person’s lifetime or a specified period of time. An annuity can be purchased with a lump sum or a series of payments and begin paying out almost immediately or at some point in the future. Annuities are often used as a way to fund retirement.

Key Takeaways

  • An annuity is a customizable contract issued by an insurance company that converts an investor’s premiums into a guaranteed fixed income stream.
  • The type of annuity you purchase determines your future annuity payments.
  • The primary benefits of buying an annuity include principal protection, the potential for guaranteed lifetime income and the option to leave money to your beneficiaries. Some annuities may also be optimized to help pay for long-term care.

What Is an Annuity?

An annuity is an insurance product designed to provide consumers with guaranteed income for life.

More specifically, an annuity contract is a legally binding, written agreement between you and the insurance company that issues the contract. This contract transfers your longevity risk — the risk of you outliving your savings — to the insurance company. In exchange, you pay premiums as outlined in the contract.

 

How Do Annuities Work?

Annuities work by converting a lump-sum premium into a stream of income that a person can’t outlive. Many retirees need more than Social Security and investment savings to provide for their daily needs.

Annuities are designed to supply this income through a process of accumulation and annuitization or, in the case of immediate annuities, lifetime payments guaranteed by the insurance company that begin within a month of purchase — no accumulation phase necessary.

In essence, when you buy a deferred annuity, you pay a premium to the insurance company. That initial investment will grow tax-deferred throughout the accumulation phase, typically anywhere from ten to 30 years, based on the terms of your contract. Once the annuitization, or distribution, phase begins — again, based on the terms of your contract — you will start receiving regular payments.

Annuity contracts transfer all the risk of a down market to the insurance company. This means you, the annuity owner, are protected from market risk and longevity risk, that is, the risk of outliving your money.

To offset this risk, insurance companies charge fees for investment management, contract riders, and other administrative services. In addition, most annuity contracts include surrender periods during which the contract holder cannot withdraw money from the annuity without incurring a surrender charge.

Furthermore, insurance companies generally impose caps, spreads and participation rates on indexed annuities, each of which can reduce your return.

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