Life annuity insurance

A life annuity is a financial contract in the form of an insurance product according to which a seller (issuer) — typically a financial institution such as a life insurance company — makes a series of future payments to a buyer (annuitant) in exchange for the immediate payment of a lump sum (single-payment annuity) or a series of regular payments (regular-payment annuity), prior to the onset of the annuity.

The payment stream from the issuer to the annuitant has an unknown duration based principally upon the date of death of the annuitant. At this point the contract will terminate and the remainder of the fund accumulated is forfeited unless there are other annuitants or beneficiaries in the contract. Thus a life annuity is a form of longevity insurance, where the uncertainty of an individual’s lifespan is transferred from the individual to the insurer, which reduces its own uncertainty by pooling many clients. Annuities can be purchased to provide an income during retirement, or originate from a structured settlement of a personal injury lawsuit.

Phases of an annuity

There are two possible phases for an annuity:

  • The accumulation phase in which the customer deposits and accumulates money into an account, and ;
  • The distribution phase in which the insurance company makes income payments until the death of the annuitants named in the contract.

It is possible to structure an annuity contract so that it has only the distribution phase; such a contract is called an immediate annuity.

Annuity contracts with a deferral phasedeferred annuities—are essentially two-phase annuities, but only having growth of capital by investment in the accumulation phase (now the deferral phase), with no customer deposits.

The phases of an annuity can be combined in the fusion of a retirement savings and retirement payment plan: the annuitant makes regular contributions to the annuity until a certain date and then receives regular payments from it until death. Sometimes there is a life insurance component added so that if the annuitant dies before annuity payments begin, a beneficiary gets either a lump sum or annuity payments.

Decision to defer or not

The option to defer purchase of an annuity (choosing income drawdown instead) has the benefit of investment flexibility, offset by the lower annuity which one will be able to purchase later after having drawn down the capital (mortality drag). Interest rates and inflation can affect the decision to purchase, as they are reflected in the annuity rates, and also affect secure investment potential by varying bond yields. Inflation deteriorates the buying power of an annuity and can therefore be a concern, however inflation-indexed plans have been marketed.

Types of life annuity

With the complex selection of options available, consumers can find it difficult to decide rationally on the right type of annuity product for their circumstances.

Fixed and variable annuities

Annuities that make payments in fixed amounts or in amounts that increase by a fixed percentage are called fixed annuities. Variable annuities, by contrast, pay amounts that vary according to the investment performance of a specified set of investments, typically bond and equity mutual funds.

Variable annuities are used for many different objectives. One common objective is deferral of the recognition of taxable gains. Money deposited in a variable annuity grows on a tax-deferred basis, so that taxes on investment gains are not due until a withdrawal is made. Variable annuities offer a variety of funds (“subaccounts”) from various money managers. This gives investors the ability to move between subaccounts without incurring additional fees or sales charges.

Guaranteed annuities

With a “pure” life annuity, annuitants may die before recovering the value of their original investment in it. If the possibility of this situation, called a “forfeiture,” is not desired, it can be ameliorated by the addition of an added clause, forming a type of guaranteed annuity, under which the annuity issuer is required to make annuity payments for at least a certain number of years (the “period certain”); if the annuitant outlives the specified period certain, annuity payments then continue until the annuitant’s death, and if the annuitant dies before the expiration of the period certain, the annuitant’s estate or beneficiary is entitled to collect the remaining payments certain. The tradeoff between the pure life annuity and the life-with-period-certain annuity is that in exchange for the reduced risk of loss, the annuity payments for the latter will be smaller.

Joint annuities

Multiple annuitant products include joint-life and joint-survivor annuities, where payments stop upon the death of one or both of the annuitants respectively. For example, an annuity may be structured to make payments to a married couple, such payments ceasing on the death of the second spouse. In joint-survivor annuities, sometimes the instrument reduces the payments to the second annuitant after death of the first.

Impaired life annuities

There has also been a significant growth in the development of Impaired Life annuities. These involve improving the terms offered due to a medical diagnosis which is severe enough to reduce life expectancy. A process of medical underwriting is involved and the range of qualifying conditions has increased substantially in recent years. Both conventional annuities and Purchase Life Annuities can qualify for impaired terms.



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