By Doug Lockwood

Increasingly, the responsibility for funding a comfortable retirement is shifting from the employer and the government to the individual. Many people contribute to employer-sponsored retirement plans and IRAs, but there is another tax-advantaged retirement vehicle that shouldn't be overlooked: annuities.

Annuity essentials

An annuity is a contract between an individual and an insurance company. They're long-term, tax-deferred investment vehicles designed for retirement purposes. In exchange for purchasing an annuity (either through a lump-sum payment or through periodic installments), the buyer receives a regular payment during retirement.

A fixed annuity essentially earns a guaranteed rate of interest for a specific period of time. Likewise, the amount of the benefit paid out at retirement is fixed. This feature can help when planning a budget for your later years because you'll know in advance how much regular income you will receive. However, in exchange for less risk, the fixed annuity buyer gives up the potential for a larger investment return. Conversely, a variable annuity allows the buyer to choose from a variety of investments that will change in value. A variable annuity buyer takes on more investment risk in exchange for greater growth potential.

Breaking down fixed annuities

Tax advantages.

One advantage to owning a fixed annuity is that you can accumulate money on a tax-deferred basis. This means that the earnings in your annuity are not taxable until you "annuitize," or begin receiving payments -- at a time when you may be in a lower tax bracket.

Generous investing guidelines.

There are generally no contribution limits on annuities. This can be especially advantageous if you've fallen behind in investing for your later years, or if you're looking to minimize taxes while investing for retirement and have contributed the maximum amounts to other tax-advantaged options. Unlike other retirement vehicles, annuities may allow you to continue contributing even after you've retired and whether you have earned income or not.

Estate planning benefits.

If you die prior to receiving money from an annuity, your beneficiary may still receive a death benefit, although he or she will have to pay taxes on the amount.

Fees and penalties.

As with other tax-advantaged retirement accounts, you may have to pay a 10 percent IRS penalty if you withdraw money from an annuity prior to age 59 1/2. In addition, you may have to pay a "surrender" charge to the issuing insurance company if you cancel your contract prematurely.

Fixed annuities for retirees

Already retired?

You can still purchase a fixed immediate annuity. In exchange for contributing a lump sum to a fixed annuity, you can immediately begin receiving income payments for a specific length of time. This may be beneficial to a retiree in good health who is concerned about outliving assets.

One annuity can be very different from another, and the rules surrounding them are complex. But if steady income and preservation of principal are goals you want to pursue, a fixed annuity may offer advantages worth looking into. Keep in mind that if you are against annuitizing your contract, you may be able to take systematic withdrawals instead, thus avoiding annuitization and keeping full control over your assets.


Doug Lockwood, CFP®, is a partner at Harbor Lights Financial Group, a full service wealth-management team that has been dedicated to assisting clients in the accumulation and preservation of their wealth for over eighteen years. He was recently named one of America's Top 100 Financial Advisors by Registered Rep Magazine (August 2010) based on assets under management. Doug Lockwood is a registered representative with and securities offered and advisory services through LPL Financial, a Registered Investment Advisor, Member FINRA/SIPC.


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