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Does an Annuity Make Sense for Retirement Planning?

By Harry S. Margolis

There are two kinds of annuities: variable and immediate. Both can be useful for retirement planning purposes and both can be misused. Variable annuities have gotten a bad reputation in recent years because they are often sold to people, especially seniors, for whom they are inappropriate. Immediate annuities, on the other hand, may be undersold.

Variable Annuities

Let’s start with an explanation of what an annuity is: It is a contract with an insurance company under which you, the consumer, pay a lump sum in exchange for certain benefits. In the case of a variable annuity, those benefits are based on an investment package. Often, the insurance company will guarantee a minimum rate of return on the annuity, even if the investments perform poorly. For instance, if you put $200,000 into an annuity with a guaranteed 5% rate of return, the annuity will pay you $10,000 a year even if the value of the investments dropped to $160,000, for which a 5% return normally would be just $8,000 a year. But if you chose to cash out the annuity, you could only withdraw $160,000. In addition, you might be hit with a penalty for early withdrawal. Typically, variable annuities charge penalties of up to 10% for withdrawal over the first few years of the investment, with the penalty gradually declining each year. In addition, you are not taxed on the investment earnings — instead, you are taxed on income when the annuity is withdrawn, whether in regular payments or as a lump sum.

Immediate Annuities

Immediate annuities are fixed contracts under which the insurance company pays the consumer a fixed amount, usually on a monthly basis, often for life. For instance, you might pay the company $200,000 in exchange for a guaranteed income stream of $1,000 a month for the rest of your life. The amount of the payment and the cost of the annuity will depend on your age since the company, in determining these numbers, will be making an estimate of how long it will have to pay—in other words, what it thinks your life expectancy will be.

In our example, if you live longer than 17 years, you will “win” because the insurance company will ultimately pay you back more than $200,000, but if you live for a shorter period of time, you will “lose” (in more ways than one) because you will receive back less than your investment. This could be a really bad investment if the consumer were to die early due to illness or an accident. In our example, if the buyer of the annuity passed away after just five years, she would have received only $60,000 in payments on her $200,000 investment. For this reason, many consumers purchase annuities with guaranteed terms of payment (“term certains”), meaning that if you were to pass away before the end of the term, payments would continue for your beneficiaries or they would receive a lump sum upon your death. For instance, if you were to buy the annuity in our example with a 10-year term certain and were to pass away after five years, the insurance company would still pay out an additional $60,000 to your heirs, either by continuing the monthly payments or in a lump sum. Of course, the length of the term certain will affect the amount of the monthly payments, since the insurance company will be committing to pay for a longer period of time, no matter how long you live. If you want a longer term certain, you will either have to pay more for the annuity or accept a smaller monthly payment.

The Rap on Variable Annuities

Variable annuities are extremely complex products and its doubtful that very many consumers fully understand their terms before purchase. That doesn’t mean that they’re bad—just that they’re confusing. In addition, buyers pay generous premiums to the brokers who sell them, payments which many brokers don’t disclose. Brokers also generally don’t disclose whether they are paid more or less by one insurance company than another or whether the annuity being sold is objectively the best option for the consumer.

This relates to another debate going on in the financial services industry. Broker dealers are held to a “suitability” rather than to a “fiduciary” standard. This means that they need only sell products and give advice that is “suitable” for the client. A fiduciary standard would require them to act in the best interest of the client. (This article more fully explains the difference.)

All of this means is that the purchaser of a variable annuity needs to be cautious and should always seek second opinions. In our experience with clients, some have been greatly helped by variable annuities—receiving higher retirement income due to the guaranteed rate of return, even after the sharp drop in investment values and low interest rates after the recent recession.

For others, however, variable annuities have been problematic. This is especially the case when a senior needed to access capital to pay for long-term care or accounts needed to be transferred between spouses to qualify an ill spouse for MassHealth benefits. In either case, this may require withdrawal of funds after the underlying asset value has dropped, which often means paying early-withdrawal penalties. For these reasons, older or sicker seniors should be wary of purchasing variable annuities. They may not be in their best interest and may not even be suitable. It’s always important to get a second opinion from an objective advisor who will not benefit from the sale of the annuity.

The Benefits of Immediate Annuities

Immediate annuities, on the other hand, are much less complicated products. They are often used in MassHealth planning. But they can also be used to guarantee a retirement income no matter how long you live. Some people call this “longevity protection.” For instance, let’s assume you plan to retire at age 65 and you have calculated that with your Social Security income, savings, and investments, you will have enough money to live comfortably for 20 years, taking into account likely inflation during that time. That’s fine if you only live to age 85, but what happens if you live past that age?

A bit more than a fifth of men and a third of women who are 65 today will make it to age 90. Your own health and your family’s longevity may give you even more guidance as to whether you will need income past age 85. But based on these statistics, if you’re a woman (or are married to one) your planning should make sure that you have sufficient income until age 90. (You may not need to be as concerned after age 90 since only 13% of 65-year-old women and a measly 7% of 65-year-old men make it to age 95.) An immediate annuity can be a solution since it will continue paying for the rest of your life even if you run through your savings and even if you live to 100 or beyond.

Variations can enhance the usefulness of immediate annuities for this purpose. For instance, if you calculate that you can give up current income in exchange for more income in the future, insurance companies will pay you a higher monthly benefit. For instance, if at age 65 you were to purchase an annuity that did not begin paying until age 85, it would pay you far more than if it were to begin paying immediately. For instance, according to one online annuity calculator, a 65-year-old woman paying $100,000 for an immediate annuity paying for her life beginning now would receive $528 a month. If she postponed payments until age 85, she would receive $3,608 a month beginning then, almost seven times as much (and more than three times the $1,125 a month she would receive if she purchased the annuity at age 85). She would, of course, have given up both the income of $126,708 ($528 x 12 x 20) and the use of her capital, but it might be a good hedge against outliving her savings.


As you can see, annuities are complex financial products. And no one, unless they can accurately predict the future, can know exactly what planning steps they can take. But that said, annuities, whether variable or immediate, can be valuable retirement and longevity planning tools. Just follow these four rules:

  1. Get expert advice.
  2. Get a second opinion.
  3. Sleep on it.
  4. Diversify. Don’t put too much of your savings into any one type of investment, whether that be variable annuities, immediate annuities, stocks or bonds.

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