What Are Annuities and How Do They Work?

Learn about what an annuity investment can do for you, how it can be used for retirement planning, what types of annuities are available and what costs are involved.
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In a time of volatile markets and low interest rates, many investors are just looking for a little certainty. Annuities are a popular option for taking some of the uncertainty out of investing, but they are not always the best solution.

If you want to figure out how well an annuity might meet your needs, it helps to understand the basics of how they work.

This article addresses questions such as:

  • What is an annuity investment?
  • How does an annuity work?
  • What types of annuity investments are there?
  • What is an annuity fund for?
  • What are the pros and cons of annuities?
  • How do I shop for annuities?

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What Is an Annuity?

An annuity is a contract with an insurance company designed to provide future income.

In exchange for a premium, the insurance company will pay you income according to a predetermined formula. This income stream is generally designed to last for the lifetime of the annuity owner, and some annuities may also have death benefits for a designated beneficiary.

Essentially, an annuity lets you delegate the responsibility of investing for your future to the insurance company. This may take some of the uncertainty out of the process for you, but it comes at the cost of the premiums and other expenses on the annuity.

Because costs and payout formulas vary greatly from one annuity to another, it is important to compare the details before buying an annuity.

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How Do Annuities Work?

Annuities, such as the ones offered by Gainsbridge, allow you to somewhat guarantee the outcome of your investments. Instead of investing money yourself and depending on the performance of those investments for future income, you can give the money to an insurance company in the form of an annuity premium.

In exchange, the insurance company will make payments to you in the future. The size and type of these payments vary according to the terms of the annuity.

Lifetime payments

One of the primary attractions of an annuity is that the payments are designed to continue for the lifetime of the annuity owner. A major risk in retirement planning is the possibility of outliving your savings. An annuity addresses this by providing for a stream of payments over the remainder of your life.

Death benefit

Another feature of some annuities is a death benefit. In exchange for an additional premium, you can provide for a payment to someone you designate as a beneficiary upon your death.

Essentially, the death benefit is like adding a life insurance element to the annuity contract. How worthwhile it is depends largely on how much you pay for it relative to the eventual payout to your beneficiary.

Tax advantages

Another feature of annuities is the tax-advantaged treatment of investment earnings.

Unlike contributions to traditional IRAs or 401(k) plans, annuity premiums are not tax-deductible. However, taxes on annuity earnings are deferred until they are paid out of the annuity. Delaying taxation in that way keeps more money compounding within the annuity.

Types of Annuity Investments

Two keys to how annuities work is how they pay out their benefits and when those payments begin.

First, consider three types of payout methods:

  • Fixed annuity
  • Variable annuity
  • Fixed index annuity

Fixed annuity

A fixed annuity is designed to pay a specified income amount on a regular cycle – monthly, quarterly or annually.

A good way to think of this is as supplementing Social Security payments or other retirement income. A fixed annuity can provide a predictable stream of income payments to help you make ends meet in retirement.

Variable annuity

A variable annuity is more of an active investment than a fixed annuity – for better or worse.

With a variable annuity, you are able to choose from a variety of investment funds offered by the insurance company. The payments you get depend on the returns of the annuity funds you’ve chosen. If those funds perform poorly, you might get less out of the annuity than you put into it.

Fixed index annuity

This is kind of a hybrid between a fixed and variable annuity.

Your payouts are linked to the performance of a market index like the S&P 500, but you don’t get the full return of that index.

The payout on a fixed index annuity can vary more than that of a fixed annuity, but typically less than that of a variable annuity.

As for when annuity payments begin, you have two choices:

  • Immediate annuity
  • Deferred annuity

Immediate annuity

As the name suggests, with an immediate annuity, payouts start right away. You would give the insurance company a lump sum of money, and they would convert that to a stream of future payments.

Deferred annuity

With a deferred annuity, you would typically make a series of payments to the insurance company over time in exchange for a series of payouts that would start on a specified date in the future.

A deferred annuity allows you to save for the future gradually. It also gives you an opportunity for a higher payout than an immediate annuity, based on investment growth between when you make your payments and when you start drawing money out.

Uses for Annuities

Investors who want to provide for the future face two main challenges: building up enough savings to live on in the future, and managing those savings so they last long enough. Annuities can help with both types of problems.

A deferred annuity can be used to build up savings over time. This makes saving for the future more manageable. An annuity also takes care of investing those savings for you and, in the case of a fixed annuity, can even give you some certainty as to what you’ll get out of your savings in the future.

If you already have money and are concerned with making it last, an immediate annuity can help. It can manage your money so that it can be paid out in regular increments over your lifetime.

A immediate annuity can be useful if you are ready for retirement and want an investment that will provide for regular payments in the future. It can also be used if you have a sudden windfall – such as an inheritance or lottery win – and want an investment that will help make that money last.

Benefits of Annuities

Annuities can make managing your money easier by handling key aspects of the process for you.

Annuities calculate how much you would have to put in to accumulate a certain target amount over time. They set up a payment schedule that keeps you on track toward your savings target.

Then, the insurance company invests the money on your behalf, based on the type of annuity you have selected. This saves you the effort of having to find appropriate investment vehicles, plus having to manage and monitor those investments over time.

Finally, the annuity contract manages the eventual series of payouts to you. This saves you having to calculate how much you can spend and still make your savings last.

Besides making it easier to manage money, annuities address one of the big uncertainties about retirement planning – not knowing how long you will live.

Annuities can guarantee continuing payments over the remainder of your life. This can help reduce the risk of outliving your savings.

Annuities can also provide for a beneficiary after you die, if you choose a contract that includes death benefits.

Drawbacks of Annuities

There are three major concerns you should recognize before you choose an annuity:


Annuities can be expensive because they involve several layers of costs:

  • Premiums – this is the money that goes toward providing your future benefits
  • Death benefit premiums – this is the cost if you want to add a life insurance element to your annuity contract
  • Commissions – these are payments to the insurance agent who sold you the annuity
  • Investment management fees – these compensate for the ongoing handling of the annuity fund
  • Surrender charges – these are extra fees if you take money out of the annuity either ahead of schedule or in excess of the planned amount


Annuities combine several things. They provide a plan to help you save, they handle investing money for you, they schedule the timing and amount of future benefit payments to you and they can even provide death benefits to a designated beneficiary.

Handling all of that may make your life easier, but it also makes it harder to tell if you’re getting a good deal.

You can compare different annuities, but to really tell whether they are worthwhile you’d have to compare whether you could accomplish all the same things less expensively by planning your savings, choosing your investments and buying life insurance yourself.

Counter-party risk

Though annuities feature guaranteed payments, it’s important to remember that they are only guaranteed by the insurance company issuing them. There is no government or other external guarantee to backstop them.

Instances of insurance companies defaulting on annuity contracts have been extremely rare, and would only be likely to happen under extreme circumstances. However, it is under extreme circumstances that risk management matters the most.

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Shopping for Annuities

If you’re thinking of buying an annuity, be sure to go step by step to make sure you know what you’re getting into.

  1. Decide what type of product you want.Because the timing and type of annuity payments vary, you need to think about your future needs and match the type of annuity contract you consider with those needs.
  2. List all the benefits.For each annuity contract you consider, start by listing the benefits it promises. This includes the amount of the payments, whether those payments are fixed or variable, when you would start receiving payments and whether there are any death benefits.
  3. List all the costs.Alongside the benefits, you should also list all the costs of the annuity. This includes premiums, commissions, investment management fees, surrender charges and any other fees.
  4. See which annuity offers the best trade-off of costs and benefits.Compare the total value of an annuity’s benefits with all of the costs involved to see which offers the best deal.
  5. Check non-annuity alternatives.Once you know the best cost-benefit trade-off available from an annuity, consider whether you could do better on your own. This would entail choosing investment vehicles, planning savings and payout schedules, and possibly buying insurance to provide death benefits.

Annuities can be useful vehicles, but they are also very complex. They are not something you should buy without doing some research and comparison-shopping first.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Should a retired couple consider an annuity as an income producer?

A: If you can find an annuity that provides you with an adequate amount of income, it would certainly be worth considering. The catch is that like everything else, annuities have seen their income yields shrink a great deal in recent years.

Annuities are investment products created by insurance companies. They have certain tax deferral features, but that would not be particularly relevant if you were investing for immediate income. There are both fixed and variable annuities, with the words “fixed” and “variable” pertaining to the type of return you would receive. Obviously, a fixed annuity would have the income features most comparable to a certificate of deposit (CD), but it is not apparent that fixed annuities have an advantage over CDs.

At the five-year end of the range for CD terms, you can do about a percentage point better than the average if you shop around for the best CD rates.

The question, then, is whether you could do better with an annuity. You shouldn’t rule either option out until you’ve seen what income yields are available, but it is likely that you’ll find annuity rates are not much higher than the best CD rates. In either case though, it is wise to do some comparison shopping to find the best rate before you commit.

Besides the importance of shopping around, another similarity between investing in an annuity and in a CD is that each one confronts you with the dilemma of whether you should lock in a given rate of income. Interest rates are unusually low right now. While making a longer-term commitment — whether in a CD or an annuity — will earn you a higher rate of income, it also means locking yourself into that rate of income for the duration of the instrument. If interest rates return to more normal levels before the maturity date of the CD or annuity, you could find yourself stuck with a sub-standard rate income for longer than you’d like.

Finally, when comparing the best CD rates and annuity rates, keep in mind one key difference between the two types of instruments: Deposits in CDs have FDIC insurance (up to the $250,000 maximum per depositor at any insured bank), while annuities have no government insurance. An annuity is backed only by the insurance company that issues it, which is a significant risk factor to consider when making your decision.

Q: I purchased two insurance policies paying me an annual rate of 4.5% 20 years ago. The insurance company has always honored this 4.5% rate, and my question is, can I count on them to continue to honor it? Could a regulatory agency force them to change that rate?

A: Assuming the policies you bought were some form of annuities, your question may be very timely because annuities often have a 20-year term. However, there are lifetime annuities, which would continue to pay for as long as you live, and may even continue to pay a surviving spouse.

In either case, part of the answer to your question will be in the annuity contracts. Is there a fixed term of years on these annuities? Are there escape clauses that allow the insurance company to terminate the contracts or alter the terms? Annuities come in many forms, so you need to review your contracts to determine whether the insurance company has any options other than continuing to pay you 4.5%.

As for whether a regulatory agency would interfere with these contracts, that is highly unlikely. Regulatory agencies are there to make sure insurance companies honor their contracts, not to help them get out of them. The only real risk of this sort of thing would be in the event of a bankruptcy on the part of the insurance company. So, keeping an eye on news and financial information about your insurance company might be of interest.

If it turns out that you’ve locked in 4.5% for life, you will have done very well for yourself. Back when you signed your contracts, you might have been able to earn more in savings accounts, CDs, or money market accounts. Now, though, CD, savings, and money market rates have plunged to a fraction of 1%, so your 4.5% return is looking pretty good.

Q: I have my IRA with an insurance company and I would like to transfer the money into other types of accounts. Can I do this without paying a penalty?

A: If your IRA is in an insurance company annuity program, then there might be a penalty for transferring your account. This points out one of the reasons why annuities are not really idea vehicles for IRAs.

Annuity contracts generally have terms which include termination penalties, although these sometimes decline over time. On first glance, that might not seem like a problem for an IRA, which is a long-term savings vehicle. However, if you wish to transfer your IRA investments, an annuity would not give you the flexibility you would have if your IRA were in savings accounts, mutual funds, or investment accounts.

This lack of flexibility makes an annuity a less-than-ideal fit for an IRA, because one of the primary attractions of an annuity is the tax deferral of investment earnings – something you would have within an IRA anyway.

If you are in an annuity and wish to transfer your IRA, here are three options:

  1. Check your annuity contract, and see if termination penalties would apply. If you’ve had the annuity for a long time, there is a chance that some or all of these penalties will have expired.
  2. See if you have grounds for breaking the contract. If the insurance company has failed to deliver on promised services, you might be able to negotiate a withdrawal from the contract without penalty.
  3. Look within the insurance company for more suitable investments. If you are locked into your contract, but don’t like the investment approach of your annuity, see if the insurance company will let you transfer to another product within their company without penalty.

Q: I would like to take my insurance annuity out and put it into an IRA CD at a bank. How do I go about doing this if I am over age 70 1/2?

A: There are three sets of issues raised by this situation:

  1. Tax issues. IRS regulations stipulate that you have to be below age 70 1/2 and have wage compensation in order to start an IRA. You should probably consult an accountant to make sure there are no adverse tax consequences to accessing the value of the annuity at this time, especially if the option of an IRA is not open to you. However, just because you cannot open an IRA does not mean a CD is not an option for you if you are looking for guaranteed income.
  2. Contractual issues. Your annuity contract should include the logistical details of who to contact about terminating the annuity. Before you do that though, you should also look through the contract to make sure the are no penalties for terminating the annuity at this time. The more recently you purchased the annuity, the more likely there are to be such penalties. Also, you should see what the insurance component of the contract entails, because this is a component of an annuity that will not be replicated by a CD. As for the CD, if you decide to open one, you should consider first what your probable liquidity needs are, because this will help you decide how long a CD term to choose. Typically, you will find the best CD rates in longer term CDs, but you may not want to commit for that long. Another important consideration is the penalty for early withdrawal — the smaller the penalty, the more flexibility you will have if your liquidity needs change.
  3. Interest rate issues. If you determine that it makes sense in other respects to terminate the annuity in favor of the CD, the next step is to shop for the best CD rates. Not only do you have to compare banks to find the best rate, but you should make sure you can find a CD that offers a rate advantage over your current annuity.

The order in which these issues appear above is probably the best order in which to address them. In other words, you want to start by avoiding any adverse tax ramifications, and then avoid any potential contractual problems. Only when you know you are free of these two issues does the decision essentially come down to comparing interest rates.

Richard Barrington has been a Senior Financial Analyst for MoneyRates. He has appeared on Fox Business News and NPR, and has been quoted by the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, USA Today, CNBC and many other publications. Richard has over 30 years of experience in financial services. He has earned the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) designation from the Association of Investment Management and Research (now the “CFA Institute”).