Is a variable annunity right for you?
- By Milt x_Zall
- Jun 14, 2002
Variable annuities have become a part of the retirement and investment plans of many Americans. Before you buy a variable annuity, you should know some of the basics and be prepared to ask your insurance agent, broker, financial planner or other financial professional questions about whether a variable annuity is right for you.
What Is a Variable Annuity?
A variable annuity is a contract between you and an insurance company in which the insurer agrees to make periodic payments to you, beginning either immediately or at some future date. You purchase a variable annuity contract by making either a single purchase payment or a series of purchase payments.
A variable annuity offers a range of investment options. The value of your investment as a variable annuity owner will vary depending on the performance of the investment options you choose. The investment options for a variable annuity are typically mutual funds that invest in stocks, bonds, money market instruments or some combination of the three.
Although variable annuities are typically invested in mutual funds, variable annuities differ from mutual funds in several important ways:
n First, variable annuities let you receive periodic payments for the rest of your life (or the life of your spouse or any other person you designate). This feature offers protection against the possibility that, after you retire, you will outlive your assets.
n Second, variable annuities have a death benefit. If you die before the insurer has started making payments to you, your beneficiary is guaranteed to receive a specified amount - typically at least the amount of your purchase payments. Your beneficiary will benefit from this feature if, at the time of your death, your account value is less than the guaranteed amount.
n Third, variable annuities are tax-deferred. That means you pay no taxes on the income and investment gains from your annuity until you withdraw your money. You may also transfer your money from one investment option to another within a variable annuity without paying tax at the time of the transfer. When you take your money out of a variable annuity, however, you will be taxed on the earnings at ordinary income tax rates rather than lower capital gains rates.
In general, the benefits of tax deferral will outweigh the costs of a variable annuity only if you hold it as a long-term investment to meet retirement and other long-range goals.
Balancing Tax Advantages
Other investment vehicles, such as individual retirement accounts, the Thrift Saving Plan and employer-sponsored 401(k) plans, also may provide you with tax-deferred growth and other tax advantages. For most investors, it will be advantageous to make the maximum allowable contributions to IRAs, the Thrift Saving Plan and 401(k) plans before investing in a variable annuity.
In addition, if you are investing in a variable annuity through a tax-advantaged retirement plan, you will get no additional tax advantage from the variable annuity. Under these circumstances, consider buying a variable annuity only if it makes sense because of the annuity's other features, such as lifetime income payments and death benefit protection.
The tax rules that apply to variable annuities can be complicated. Before investing, you may want to consult a tax adviser about the tax consequences to you of investing in a variable annuity.
Remember: Variable annuities are designed to be long-term investments. They are not suitable for meeting short-term goals because substantial taxes and insurance company charges may apply if you withdraw your money early. Variable annuities also involve investment risks, just as mutual funds do.
Coming Next Week
How variable annuities work.
Zall, Bureaucratus columnist and a retired federal employee, is a freelance writer based in Silver Spring, Md. He specializes in taxes, investing, business and government workplace issues. He is a certified internal auditor and a registered investment adviser. He can be reached at [email protected]