In the U.S. an annuity contract is created when an individual gives a life insurance company money which may grow on a tax-deferred basis and then can be distributed back to the owner in several ways. The defining characteristic of all annuity contracts is the option for a guaranteed distribution of income until the death of the person or persons named in the contract. Perhaps confusingly, the majority of modern annuity customers use annuities only to accumulate funds and to take lump-sum withdrawals without using the guaranteed-income-for-life feature.
There are two possible phases for an annuity, one phase in which the customer deposits and accumulates money into an account (the deferral phase), and another phase in which customers receive payments for some period of time (the annuity or income phase). During this latter phase, the insurance company makes income payments that may be set for a stated period of time, such as five years, or continue until the death of the customer(s) (the "annuitant(s)") named in the contract. Annuitization over a lifetime can have a death benefit guarantee over a certain period of time, such as ten years. Annuity contracts with a deferral phase always have an annuity phase and are called deferred annuities. An annuity contract may also be structured so that it has only the annuity phase; such a contract is called an immediate annuity.
The overarching characteristic of the immediate annuity is that it is a vehicle for distributing savings with a tax-deferred growth factor. A common use for an immediate annuity might be to provide a pension income. In the U.S., the tax treatment of an immediate annuity is that every payment is a combination of a return of principal (which part is not taxed) and income (which is taxed at ordinary income rates, not capital gain rates). When a deferred annuity is annuitized, it works like an immediate annuity from that point on, but with a lower cost basis and thus more of the payment is taxed.
A life annuity works somewhat like a loan that is made by the purchaser (contract owner) to the issuing (insurance) company, which pays back the original capital or principal (which isn't taxed) with interest and/or gains (which is taxed as ordinary income) to the annuitant on whose life the annuity is based. The assumed period of the loan is based on the life expectancy of the annuitant. In order to guarantee that the income continues for life, the insurance company relies on a concept called cross-subsidy or the "law of large numbers". Because an annuity population can be expected to have a distribution of lifespans around the population's mean (average) age, those dying earlier will give up income to support those living longer whose money would otherwise run out. Thus it is a form of longevity insurance (see also below).
A life annuity, ideally, can reduce the "problem" faced by a person that he/she doesn't know how long he/she will live, and so he/she doesn't know the optimal speed at which to spend his/her savings. Life annuities with payments indexed to the Consumer Price Index might be an acceptable solution to this problem, but there is only a thin market for them in North America.
The pure life annuity can have harsh consequences for the annuitant who dies before recovering his or her investment in the contract. Such a situation, called a forfeiture, can be mitigated by the addition of a period-certain feature under which the annuity issuer is required to make annuity payments for a least a certain number of years; if the annuitant outlives the specified period certain, annuity payments continue until the annuitant's death, and if the annuitant dies before the expiration of the period certain, the annuitant's estate or beneficiary is entitled to the remaining payments certain. The tradeoff between the pure life annuity and the life-with-period-certain annuity is that the annuity payment for the latter is smaller. A viable alternative to the life-with-period-certain annuity is to purchase a single-premium life policy that would cover the lost premium in the annuity.
Impaired-life annuities for smokers or those with a particular illness are also available from some insurance companies. Since the life expectancy is reduced, the annual payment to the purchaser is raised.
Life annuities are priced based on the probability of the annuitant surviving to receive the payments. Longevity insurance is a form of annuity that defers commencement of the payments until very late in life. A common longevity contract would be purchased at or before retirement but would not commence payments until 20 years after retirement. If the nominee dies before payments commence there is no payable benefit. This drastically reduces the cost of the annuity while still providing protection against outliving one's resources.
All varieties of deferred annuities owned by individuals have one thing in common: any increase in account values is not taxed until those gains are withdrawn. This is also known as tax-deferred growth.
A deferred annuity which grows by interest rate earnings alone is called a fixed deferred annuity (FA). A deferred annuity that permits allocations to stock or bond funds and for which the account value is not guaranteed to stay above the initial amount invested is called a variable annuity (VA).
A new category of deferred annuity, called the equity indexed annuity (EIA) emerged in 1995. Equity indexed annuities may have features of both fixed and variable deferred annuities. The insurance company typically guarantees a minimum return for EIA. An investor can still lose money if he or she cancels (or surrenders) the policy early, before a "break even" period. An oversimplified expression of a typical EIA's rate of return might be that it is equal to a stated "participation rate" multiplied by a target stock market index's performance excluding dividends. Interest rate caps or an administrative fee may be applicable.
Deferred annuities in the United States have the advantage that taxation of all capital gains and ordinary income is deferred until withdrawn. In theory, such tax-deferred compounding allows more money to be put to work while the savings are accumulating, leading to higher returns. A disadvantage, however, is that when amounts held under a deferred annuity are withdrawn or inherited, the interest/gains are immediately taxed as ordinary income.
Deferred annuities are usually divided into two different kinds:
There are several types of performance guarantees, and one may often choose them a la carte, with higher risk charges for guarantees that are riskier for the insurance companies. The first type is comprised of guaranteed minimum death benefits (GMDBs), which can be received only if the owner of the annuity contract, or the covered annuitant, dies.
GMDBs come in various flavors, in order of increasing risk to the insurance company:
Insurance companies provide even greater insurance coverage on guaranteed living benefits, which tend to be elective. Unlike death benefits, which the contractholder generally can't time, living benefits pose significant risk for insurance companies as contractholders will likely exercise these benefits when they are worth the most. Annuities with guaranteed living benefits (GLBs) tend to have high fees commensurate with the additional risks underwritten by the issuing insurer.
Some GLB examples, in no particular order:
The investor will, generally, not pay any of this commission directly to the financial professional; the commission is paid by the insurance company to the financial professional up front. The insurance company will recapture the commission paid to the financial professional through the fees charged to the customer (in a variable or equity indexed annuity) or the spread in the interest rate market (for a fixed annuity). There are also deferred back-end charges that will be applied if the investor closes out his or her contract before the agreed-upon time frame, usually 8 years. These charges can last for as little as 1 year or as many as 20 years, depending on the type of annuity and issuing company. These back-end charges concern many financial professionals and financial gurus.
Some annuities do not have any deferred surrender charges and do not pay the financial professional a commission, although the financial professional may charge a fee for his or her advice. These contracts are called "no-load" variable annuity products and are usually available from a fee-based financial planner or directly from a no-load mutual fund company. Of course various charges are still imposed on these contracts, but they are less than those sold by commissioned brokers. It is important that potential purchasers -- of annuities, mutual funds, tax-exempt municipal bonds, commodities futures, interest-rate swaps, in short, any financial instrument -- understand the fees on the product and the fees a financial planner may charge.
Variable annuities are controversial because many believe the extra fees (i.e., the fees above and beyond those charged for similar retail mutual funds that offer no principal protection or guarantees of any kind) may reduce the rate of return compared to what the investor could make by investing directly in similar investments outside of the variable annuity. A big selling point for variable annuities is the guarantees many have, such as the guarantee that the customer will not lose his or her principal. Critics say that these guarantees are not necessary because over the long term the market has always been positive, while others say that with the uncertainty of the financial markets many investors simply will not invest without guarantees. Past returns are no guarantee of future performance, of course, and different investors have different risk tolerances, different investment horizons, different family situations, and so on. The sale of any security product should involve a careful analysis of the suitability of the product for a given individual.
A controversial practice of insurance sales is the selling of insurance contracts within an IRA or 401(k) plan. Since these investment vehicles are already tax deferred, investors do not receive additional tax shelters from the annuities. The benefit of the annuity contract is the guaranteed lifetime income that all annuity contracts must have by state law. Approximately 90% of annuitants, however, have not taken the life annuity upon retirement. If an investor does not intend to take the life income option from an annuity contract at retirement he or she may want to consider a low-cost deferred annuity.
If an investor needs to take lifetime income at retirement, on the other hand, he or she may want to try to buy an annuity upon retirement or might consider selecting a 401(k) plan account with an option to buy the annuity just before retirement.
In the October 2003 edition of Wealth Manager, an article titled "Photo Finish" by W. McAfee, Jr. examined the effects of taxation on annuities relative to other investment vehicles. The author found that annuities are generally not effective as a tax-deferral vehicle and that there are significant flaws in the use of annuities for financial planning during the accumulation phase.
Since the Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2003, the use of variable annuities as a tax shelter has greatly diminished, because the growth of mutual funds and now most of the dividends of the fund are taxed at long term capital gains rates. This taxation, contrasted with the taxation of all the growth of variable annuities at income rates, means that in most cases, variable annuities shouldn't be used for tax shelters unless very long holding periods apply (for example, more than 20 years).
Also, any withdrawals before an investor reaches the age of 59 ½ are generally subject to a 10% tax penalty in addition to any gain being taxed as ordinary income.
In the October 2003 edition of Wealth Manager, an article titled "Photo Finish" by W. McAfee, Jr.  examined the effects of taxation on annuities relative to other investment vehicles. The author found that annuities are generally not effective as a tax-deferral vehicle and that there are significant flaws in the use of annuities for financial planning during the accumulation phase.
Insurance company defaults are governed by state law. The laws are, however, broadly similar in most states. Annuity contracts are protected against insurance company insolvency up to a specific dollar limit, often $100,000, but as high as $500,000 in New York , New Jersey , and the state of Washington This protection is not insurance and is not provided by a government agency. It is provided by an entity called the state Guaranty Association. When an insolvency occurs, the Guaranty Association steps in to protect annuity holders, and decides what to do on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes the contracts will be taken over and fulfilled by a solvent insurance company.
The state Guaranty Association is not a government agency, but states usually require insurance companies to belong to it as a condition of being licensed to do business. The Guaranty Associations of the fifty states are members of a national umbrella association, the National Organization of Life and Health Insurance Guaranty Associations (NOLHGA). The NOLHGA website provides a description of the organization, links to websites for the individual state organizations, and links to the actual text of the governing state laws.
A difference between guaranty association protection and the protection e.g. of bank accounts by FDIC, credit union accounts by NCUA, and brokerage accounts by SIPC, is that it is difficult for consumers to learn about this protection. Usually, state law prohibits insurance agents and companies from using the guaranty association in any advertising and agents are prohibited by statute from using this Web site or the existence of the guaranty association as an inducement to purchase insurance(e.g. ). Presumably this is a response to concerns by stronger insurance companies about moral hazard.
Some firms allow an investor to pick an annuity share class, which determines the salesperson's commission schedule. The main variables are the up-front commission and the trailing commission.
"No-load" variable annuities are available on a direct-to-consumer basis from several no-load mutual fund companies. "No-load" means the products have no sales commissions or surrender charges. Even these lower cost variable annuities often make sense only after an investor has exhausted all other forms of tax shelters, and only if being held for quite some time.
Fixed and Indexed Annuity commissions are paid by the insurance companies the licensed agent represents. Commissions are not paid out of the clients principal.