What is Retirement Annuity: Should You Buy it?

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An annuity is a financial product that provides regular payments over a set period of time.

They are usually purchased in anticipation of retirement because they ensure your money will be repaid over a definite period of time and that you will gain interest while taxes on your funds are deferred.

Annuities, which are sold through insurance companies, usually come with a contract to protect you from suffering a loss.

There are several kinds of annuities, each with different payout options:

Fixed and Variable Aannuities

You will need to decide between Fixed and Variable annuities.

Fixed annuities are simple investments that are repaid at a later date.

Within a variable annuity, you can choose stocks and bonds in which to invest.

The performances of those securities determine your return on investment.

Lump Sum Annuity

A Lump Sum Annuity returns your money all at once, on one preset date

Period Certain Annuity

A Period Certain Annuity sends you regular payments on a preset schedule

Life Annuity

A Life Annuity makes steady payments for the duration of your life. A similar investment is a Joint or Survivor Annuity, which pays off at regular intervals for the rest of you or a family member’s life.

You can purchase annuities through banks, mutual-fund companies and insurance providers.

Advantages Of Annuities

Compared to direct investment in the stock market, annuities are a relatively safe bet.

Annuities guarantee you will get your investment back with accumulated interest and with deferred income taxes.

You will be charged a fee for purchasing an annuity, but small interest gains over a long period of time are meant to offset the fees.

Annuities are not especially liquid because of the early withdrawal fines, but purchasing annuities is more hands-off than investing in the stock market, which can be volatile, especially when the economy is struggling.

Drawbacks Of Annuities

Annuities aren’t for everyone.

In fact, the investments have some definite downsides to be considered before making a purchase.

Annuities often charge more fees than comparable long-term accounts.

If you invest in an annuity, don’t expect to take your money out anytime soon.

Funds placed in an annuity are typically locked up for about five years.

If you withdraw a portion of your funds early, you’ll pay fines as high as 6%.

Withdrawing the funds within a long-term variable annuity before you turn 59 ½ years old can result in a 10% penalty.

An annuity is only as good as the insurance company that backs it.

Experts recommend never placing a great portion of your savings in annuities with one company because of the customer liability that comes with annuities.

In an interview with Forbes, Cuttone & Co. vice president Bernie McSherry said, “I would spread (annuities) among three or four providers at a minimum.”

The economists interviewed by Forbes could not remember a case of an insurance company defaulting and costing its investors, saying action from the government saved customers’ investments.

One of the selling points of annuities is the tax-free interest they earn, meaning you will pay income tax on the money when you take it out, rather than when you originally earn it.

Deferring the taxes is technically a solid deal, but assuming income taxes are not exorbitantly high, you would stand to make more by directly investing in the market.

A solid alternative to purchasing an annuity is buying U.S. Savings Bonds.

Should You Buy it?

If you’re considering an annuity, it may be wise to walk through this checklist to see if such an investment is suitable for you.

What you’ll find is that there are three factors that will drive your decision.

1. Risk

First, your level of nervousness as you enter retirement: If you’re worried that you will outlive your savings, a fixed, immediate annuity may be a very wise choice.

You can buy them in almost any size imaginable.

So you can take, say, $100,000 of your savings and shop around to see what sort of income an insurance company will guarantee to pay you over time.

2. How Much Are You Saving?

Second, how much you’re saving as you prepare for retirement: Annuities are generally more suitable for older people than younger.

If you haven’t yet reached your 45th birthday, there’s probably better places for you to stash your cash. 

But if you’re 45 or older -- and you’re already saving the legal maximums for your age in a 401(k) and IRA -- it’s time to look at some alternatives, including annuities.

3. For Who Are you Investing?

Third, think of the kids: Are you making investments for you, or for your heirs?

Because if you’re thinking about leaving a legacy, an annuity is not the right vehicle. 

The obvious reason for this is that a fixed, immediate annuity is designed to provide income for your lifetime.

Once you’re gone, so is the annuity

There are exceptions. Some annuities will pay out to a beneficiary. So read the fine print, like, 10 times!

Variable Annuity

There is another form of annuity, however, that is marketed as having some interesting tax breaks attached to them -- the variable annuity.

But the thing about VAs is that although you get a tax break, the folks you leave behind will not.

That’s why we like this classic bit of advice from Jane Bryant Quinn: “When they (your heirs)  sell, they'll owe higher taxes on VAs than they would have on comparable mutual funds.

For a tax-deferred investment intended solely for heirs, consider a cash-value life insurance policy where all the proceeds pass tax free.”

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