ANNUITIES

An annuity is an interest-bearing financial contract that combines the tax-deferred savings and investment properties of retirement accounts with the guaranteed-income aspects of insurance. "Annuities are sometimes described as the flip side of life insurance," stated Stephen Blakely in Nation's Business. "Whereas life insurance is designed to provide financial protection against dying too soon, annuities provide a hedge against outliving your retirement savings. While life insurance is designed to create principal, an annuity is designed ultimately to liquidate principal that has been created, typically in regular payments over a number of years."

Annuities can be purchased from insurance providers, banks, mutual fund companies, stockbrokers, and other financial institutions. They come in several different forms, including immediate and deferred annuities, and fixed and variable annuities. Each form has different properties and involves different costs. Although the money placed in an annuity is first subject to taxation at the same rate as ordinary income, it is then invested and allowed to grow tax-deferred until it is withdrawn. Distribution is flexible and can take the form of a lump sum, a systematic payout over a specified period, or a guaranteed income spread over the remainder of a person's life. In most cases annuities are a long-term investment vehicle, since the costs involved make it necessary to hold an annuity for a number of years in order to reap financial benefits. Because of their flexibility, annuities can be a good choice for small business owners in planning for their own retirement or in providing an extra reward or incentive for valued employees.

TYPES OF ANNUITIES

There are several different types of annuities available, each with different properties and costs that should be taken into consideration as business owners put together their retirement investment portfolio. The two basic forms that annuities take are immediate and deferred.

An immediate annuity, as the name suggests, begins providing payouts at once. Payouts may continue either for a specific period or for life, depending on the contract terms. Immediate annuities—which are generally purchased with a one-time deposit, with a minimum of around $10,000—are not very common. They tend to appeal to people who wish to roll over a lump-sum amount from a pension or inheritance and begin drawing income from it. The immediate annuity would be preferable to a regular bank account because the principal grows more quickly through investment and because the amount and duration of payouts are guaranteed by contract. In contrast, deferred annuities delay payouts until a specific future date. The principal amount is invested and allowed to grow tax-deferred over time. More common than immediate annuities, deferred annuities appeal to people who want a tax-deferred investment vehicle in order to save for retirement.

There are also two basic types of deferred annuity: fixed and variable. Fixed annuities provide a guaranteed interest rate over a certain period, usually between one and five years. In this way, fixed annuities are comparable to certificates of deposit (CDs) and bonds, with the main benefit that the sponsor guarantees the return of the principal. Fixed annuities generally offer a slightly higher interest rate than CDs and bonds, while the risk is also slightly higher. In addition, like other types of annuities, the principal is allowed to grow tax-deferred until it is withdrawn.

On the other hand, the more popular variable annuities offer an interest rate that changes based on the value of the underlying investment. Purchasers of variable annuities can usually choose from a range of stock, bond, and money market funds for investment purposes in order to diversify their portfolios and manage risk. Some of these funds are created and managed specifically for the annuity, while others are similar to those that may be purchased directly from mutual fund companies. The minimum investment usually ranges from $500 to $5,000, depending on the sponsor, and the investments (or subaccounts) usually feature varying levels of risk, from aggressive growth to conservative fixed income. In most cases, the annuity principal can be transferred from one investment to another without being subject to taxation. Variable annuities are subject to market fluctuations, however, and investors also must accept a slight risk of losing their principal if the sponsor company encounters financial difficulties.

FEATURES OF ANNUITIES

Variable annuities have a number of features that differentiate them from common retirement accounts, such as 401(k)s and IRAs, and from common equity investments, such as mutual funds. One of the main points of differentiation involves tax deferral. Unlike 401(k)s or IRAs, variable annuities are funded with after-tax money—meaning that contributions are subject to taxation at the same rate as ordinary income prior to being placed in the annuity. In contrast, individuals are allowed to make contributions to the other types of retirement accounts using pre-tax dollars. "That is why financial specialists generally advise people first to maximize contributions to 401(k) plans and IRAs (when eligible) before considering annuities," wrote Blakely. On the plus side, there is no limit on the amount that an individual may contribute to a variable annuity, while contributions to the other types of accounts are limited by the federal government. Unlike the dividends and capital gains that accrue to mutual funds, however, which are taxable in the year they are received, the money invested in annuities is allowed to grow tax free until it is withdrawn.

Another feature that differentiates variable annuities from other types of financial products is the death benefit. Most annuity contracts include a clause guaranteeing that the investor's heirs will receive either the full amount of principal invested or the current market value of the contract, whichever is greater, in the event that the investor dies before receiving full distribution of the assets. However, any earnings are taxable for the heirs. Although this provision is unlikely to be needed given the strong growth of long term investments in recent years, it is nonetheless a key provision of annuities.

Another benefit of variable annuities is that they offer greater withdrawal flexibility than other retirement accounts. Investors are able to customize the distribution of their assets in a number of ways, ranging from a lump-sum payment to a guaranteed lifetime income. Some limitations do apply, however. The federal government imposes a 10 percent penalty on withdrawals taken before age 59 ½, for example. But contributors to variable annuities are not required to begin taking distributions until age 85, whereas contributors to IRAs and 401(k)s are required to begin taking distributions by age 70 ½.

COSTS ASSOCIATED WITH ANNUITIES

In exchange for the various features offered by annuities, investors must pay a number of costs. Many of the costs are due to the insurance aspects of annuities, although they vary among different sponsors. One common type of cost associated with annuities is the insurance cost, which averages 1.25 percent and pays for the guaranteed death benefit in addition to the insurance agent's commission. There are also usually management fees, averaging 1 percent, which compensate the sponsor for taking care of the investments and generating reports. Many annuities also charge modest administrative or contract fees.

One of the most problematic costs of annuities, in the eyes of their critics, is the surrender charge for early removal of the principal. In most cases, this fee begins at around 7 percent but then phases out over time. However, the surrender fee is charged in addition to the 10 percent government penalty for early withdrawal if the investor is under age 59 ½. "The effect is that you are essentially trapped in the product," wrote Karen Hube in Money.

All of the costs associated with variable annuities detract somewhat from their attractiveness as a financial product when one compares them to mutual funds. The costs also mean that there are no quick profits associated with annuities; instead, they must be held as a long-term investment. "All the fees so erode your returns that it can take as long as 17 years for the benefits of tax deferral to kick in and outweigh the expenses," Hube stated. "If you can afford to put money away for a period that lasts longer than some marriages, then variable annuities can make sense."

DISTRIBUTION OPTIONS

On the positive side, investors in annuities have a number of options for receiving the distribution of their funds. The three most common forms of distribution—all of which have various costs deducted—are lump sum, lifetime income, and systematic payout. Some investors who have contributed to a variable annuity over many years may elect to make a lump sum withdrawal. The main drawback to this approach is that all the taxes are due immediately. Other investors may decide upon a systematic payout of the accumulated assets over a specified time period. In this approach, the investor can determine the amount of payments as well as the intervals at which payments will be received. Finally, some investors choose the option of receiving a guaranteed lifetime income. This option is the most expensive for the investor, and does not provide any money for heirs, but the sponsor of the annuity must continue to make payouts even if the investor outlives his or her assets. A similar distribution arrangement is joint-and-last-survivor, which is an annuity that keeps providing income as long as one person in a couple is alive.

Annuities are rather complex financial products, and as such they have become the subject of considerable debate among experts in financial planning. As mentioned earlier, many experts claim that the special features of annuities are not great enough to make up for their cost as compared to other investment options. As a result, financial advisors commonly suggest that individuals maximize their contributions to IRAs, 401(k)s, or other pre-tax retirement accounts before considering annuities (investors should avoid placing annuities into IRAs or other tax-sheltered account because the tax shelter then becomes redundant and the investor pays large annuity fees for nothing). Some experts also prefer mutual funds tied to a stock market index to annuities, because such funds typically cost less and often provide a more favorable tax situation. Contributions to annuities are taxed at the same rate as ordinary income, for instance, while long-term capital gains from stock investments are taxed at a special, lower rate—usually 20 percent. Still other financial advisors note that, given the costs involved, annuities require a very long-term financial commitment in order to provide benefits. It may not be possible for some individuals to tie up funds for the 17 to 20 years it takes to benefit from the purchase of an annuity.

Despite the drawbacks, however, annuities can be beneficial for individuals in a number of different situations. For example, annuities provide an extra source of income and an added margin of safety for individuals who have contributed the limit allowed under other retirement savings options. In addition, some kinds of annuities can be valuable for individuals who want to protect their assets from creditors in the event of bankruptcy. An annuity can provide a good shelter for a retirement nest egg for someone in a risky profession, such as medicine. Annuities are also recommended for people who plan to spend the principal during their lifetime rather than leaving it for their heirs. Finally, annuities may be more beneficial for individuals who expect that their tax bracket will be 28 percent or lower at the time they begin making withdrawals.

Annuities may also hold a great deal of appeal for small businesses. For example, annuities can be used as a retirement savings plan on top of a 401 (k). They can be structured in various ways to reward employees for meeting company goals. In addition, annuities can provide a nice counterpart to life insurance, since the longer the investor lives, the better an annuity will turn out to be as an investment. Finally, some annuities allow investors to take out loans against the principal without paying penalties for early withdrawal. Overall, some financial experts claim that annuities are actually worth more than comparable investments because of such features as the death benefit, guaranteed lifetime income, and investment services.

A small business owner considering setting up an annuity should consider all options, look carefully at both the costs and the returns, and be prepared to put money away for many years. It is also important to shop around for the best possible product and sponsor before committing funds. "Before investing in an annuity, make sure the insurance company that will sponsor the contract is financially healthy," counseled Mel Poteshman in Los Angeles Business Journal. "Also, find out from the sponsoring company the interest rates that have been paid out over the last five to ten years and how interest rate changes are calculated. This will give you an idea of the annuity's overall performance and help you identify the annuity that provides the best long-range financial security.

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