Annuity Questions Answered

So many new clients come to me already owning an annuity or several annuites, and they do not understand them or know what types of fees are in them.  I went back through my e-mails to clients and looked through the types of questions I get about annuities and thought I would answer some of them here by explaining some of the concepts around annuities.

An annuity is a product offered through insurance companies.  It is tax deferred, which means the income and earnings from the investment stay in the account and are not reported on your tax return each year.  That is the good news.  The bad news is that when you take the money out of the account, it is taxed at your income tax rate, which could actually be at a higher rate than the rate you would have paid if you hadn’t had your money invested in an annuity, depending on the type of annuity you have.  However, the tax deferral is a nice benefit.

Fixed Annuity

With a fixed annuity you get a specific interest rate for a specific time period.  Sometimes you will get a higher rate for the first year and then a lower rate for the remaining years, but you know this when you make your initial purchase.

Variable Annuity

A variable annuity offers you the opportunity to invest in mutual funds.  There are annuities that invest in multiple fund families, including index fund families.

Death Benefit

This is an insurance product, so one feature, or “insurance rider” that some of these products have is something called a Death Benefit.  Sometimes the Death Benefit value can be more than the Account Value.  Each product’s Death Benefit works differently.  Sometimes it is as simple as saying the Death Benefit is the greater of current market value or what you invest minus withdrawls.  Or it might have a Step Up feature.  For example each year on the anniversary of the purchase date the value is recorded and the highest annual value or current market value is the Death Benefit if you pass away.

1035 exchange

One nice benefit to this type of product is that you are allowed to move from one insurance company to another without any tax consequences.  Doing this is called a 1035 exchange (that is the IRS name for the procedure of moving the money, it seems like they put code numbers in the names of all of their procedures).  If you cashed the money in you would have to pay taxes on the gains.  If you just move it to another annuity, then you can continue to defer the taxes.


When looking at annuities be sure to compare fees.  Fees are quoted in percentages.  It is extremely important to convert the percentages to actual dollars based on the amount you are investing because when you do that you can sometimes see thousands of dollars of difference in fees between two annuities that when just looking at percentages seem to be pretty similar in fee structure.  I would always rather see my clients with that money in their account rather than give it to an insurance company unnecessarily.

Surrender charges

A surrender charge is a fee you pay the insurance company if you take your money out in the first few years after you have had the annuity.  A seven year surrender charge schedule is very common, for example the first year surrender charge would be 6%, the second year would be 5%, and so on until the surrender charge went away.  You might be surprised to know that there are annuities that do not have surrender charges!  So if you have an annuity and you are in the position of having to decide what to do with it, you can 1035 exchange it to an annuity that does not have a surrender charge.  Most people are not aware of that.

IRA annuity

If you have an annuity that is an IRA, you can always move it directly to an IRA, and forgo the extra layer of fees that you find in an annuity.  Things to consider before doing that: 1) are there surrender charges? 2) is the death benefit greater than the current value of the account?

Learn more about your annuity by reading the statement and the prospectus.  If you don’t have the prospectus, many of them can be found online by Googleing the product name.  If that does not work, give the customer service department a call, they will be happy to e-mail or mail you a copy of the prospectus which has the fee and investment information.

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