When you purchase a tax-deferred annuity, you have to name three parties: The owner, the annuitant, and the beneficiary. The owner makes the initial investment, decides when to begin taking income and can change the beneficiary designation at will. The annuitant's life is the measure that is used to determine the benefits to be paid out under the contract. The named beneficiary is entitled to the annuity funds when the annuity contract owner dies.

Generally, the owner and the annuitant are the same person. When they are not the same person, things can get complicated when one of them dies, and beneficiaries can be hit with a big income tax bill if they don't understand the rules.

In this article, we'll go over some of the situations that can occur when an annuity owner or annuitant dies and provide some steps that each party can take to protect their assets and reduce tax liability.

General Provisions

Beneficiaries of non-qualified (not held in an IRA or another retirement plan) annuities cannot take advantage of the step-up in basis provision in the tax code as they might with other assets you leave them. They will thus owe ordinary income taxes on all gains in the account.

However, if they annuitize the contract, a portion of each annuity payment will be considered a tax-free return of principal. This is determined by calculating the exclusion ratio and could spread the tax liability out over a longer time.

Annuitant-Owned Annuities

Spousal Beneficiary

A surviving spouse beneficiary of an annuity is treated as the new owner. This will allow your spouse to take your place and continue to defer the income taxes until he or she dies.

Non-Spousal Beneficiaries

Unlike spousal beneficiaries, non-spouse beneficiaries of non-qualified annuities can't simply assume ownership. As beneficiaries, they must take the benefits within five years. However, they can annuitize the contract within 60 days of your death instead of receiving a lump sum. The payments must begin no later than one year after you die.

Unusual Owner-Annuitant Designations

Annuity Jointly Owned by Husband and Wife

You and your spouse might jointly own the annuity contract. This may have been done for Medicaid planning purposes. For example, if either of you enters a nursing home, the other could annuitize the contract based on the stay-at-home spouse's life expectancy. This would make the asset exempt for determining whether you qualify for Medicaid.

However, if either of you dies before annuitizing the contract, there could be problems because the IRS requires that beneficiaries take the proceeds as stated in the previous section upon the first joint owner's death. Consequently, the beneficiaries would have taxes to pay, while the surviving joint owner would lose the funds.

The Owner, Annuitant, and Beneficiary Are Different People

There have been advisors who have suggested that annuity owners name a younger person as the annuitant. This would stretch out the payments and associated income tax liability for a longer time. However, if the annuitant dies before the owner, the beneficiaries must remove the funds.

As a hypothetical example, suppose that a husband is the annuity's owner, his son is the annuitant, and his wife is the beneficiary. If the son dies, the owner's wife (the mother) has to take the proceeds and pay the income tax just as any other non-spousal beneficiary would.

On the other hand, if the husband dies first, the wife can step into his shoes and continue the annuity's tax deferral. If she remarries, she could name her new spouse as beneficiary. At her death, her new husband could step into her shoes and continue the tax deferral.

Non-Spouse Named as Beneficiary (by Non-Annuitant Owner)

To modify the above example, suppose that the husband names his sister as the beneficiary and keeps his son as the annuitant. In this case, when the husband dies, his sister must remove the funds just as any other non-spousal beneficiary is required to do.

What You Should Do

As an Owner

Investors should keep good records of the amounts put into annuities. Also, you'll want to check to see who is named as the owner, annuitant, and beneficiary.

Meanwhile, review your annuities to interpret beneficiary distribution provisions. You may find that there are surrender charges at the death of a non-annuitant owner but not at the annuitant's death. Or there might be a waiver on surrender charges when an annuitant, but not the owner, enters a nursing home. (For related insight, read more about dealing with annuity losses.)

As a Beneficiary

If you have inherited an annuity, ask the annuity company to calculate the payments you could receive under several different systematic payout options, such as lifetime, 20-year and 10-year options. Have them provide the exclusion ratios so you can determine the after-tax consequences. Then compare this to receiving a lump sum.

Also, don't forget that if the federal estate tax was paid, you could claim an income tax deduction for the amount of the estate tax attributable to the annuity as part of your itemized deductions on Schedule A.

The Bottom Line

For owners, annuitants and beneficiaries alike, knowing your options and staying informed is the best way to avoid unpleasant financial surprises and unnecessary costs. For more, read about refusing an inheritance and getting started on your estate plan.