In general, annuities have the following features.
1. Tax deferral on investment earningsMany investments are taxed year by year, but the investment earnings—capital gains and investment income—in annuities aren’t taxable until the investor withdraws money. This tax deferral is also true of 401(k) s and IRAs; however, unlike these products, there are no limits on the amount one can put into an annuity. Moreover, the minimum withdrawal requirements for annuities are much more liberal than they are for 401(k)s and IRAs.
2. Protection from creditorsPeople who own an immediate annuity (that is, who are receiving money from an insurance company), are afforded some protection from creditors. Generally the most that creditors can access is the payments as they are made, since the money the annuity owner gave the insurance company now belongs to the company. Some state statutes and court decisions also protect some or all of the payments from those annuities.
3. An array of investment optionsMany annuity companies offer a variety of investment options. For example, individuals can invest in a fixed annuity that credits a specified interest rate, similar to a bank Certificate of Deposit (CD). If they buy a variable annuity, their money can be invested in stocks, bonds or mutual funds. In recent years, annuity companies have created various types of “floors” that limit the extent of investment decline from an increasing reference point.
4. Taxfree transfers among investment optionsIn contrast to mutual funds and other investments made with aftertax money, with annuities there are no tax consequences if owners change how their funds are invested. This can be particularly valuable if they are using a strategy called “rebalancing,” which is recommended by many financial advisors. Under rebalancing, investors shift their investments periodically to return them to the proportions that represent the risk/return combination most appropriate for the investor’s situation.
5. Lifetime incomeA lifetime immediate annuity converts an investment into a stream of payments that last until the annuity owner dies. In concept, the payments come from three “pockets”: The original investment, investment earnings and money from a pool of people in the investors group who do not live as long as actuarial tables forecast. The pooling is unique to annuities, and it’s what enables annuity companies to be able to guarantee a lifetime income.
6. Benefits to heirsThere is a common apprehension that if an individual starts an immediate lifetime annuity and dies soon after that, the insurance company keeps all of the investment in the annuity. To prevent this situation individuals can buy a “guaranteed period” with the immediate annuity. A guaranteed period commits the insurance company to continue payments after the owner dies to one or more designated beneficiaries; the payments continue to the end of the stated guaranteed period—usually 10 or 20 years (measured from when the owner started receiving the annuity payments). Moreover, annuity benefits that pass to beneficiaries don’t go through probate and aren’t governed by the annuity owner’s will.