What Is a Deferred Annuity?

A deferred annuity is a contract with an insurance company that promises to pay the owner a regular income, or a lump sum, at some future date. Investors often use deferred annuities to supplement their other retirement income, such as Social Security. Deferred annuities differ from immediate annuities, which begin making payments right away.

Key Takeaways

  • A deferred annuity is an insurance contract that promises to pay the buyer a regular income or a lump sum of money at some date in the future. Immediate annuities, by contrast, start paying right away.
  • Deferred annuities come in several different types—fixed, indexed, and variable—which determine how their rate of return is computed.
  • Withdrawals from a deferred annuity may be subject to surrender charges as well as to a 10% tax penalty if the owner is under age 59½.

How Deferred Annuities Work

There are three basic types of deferred annuities: fixed, indexed, and variable. As their name implies, fixed annuities promise a specific, guaranteed rate of return on the money in the account. Indexed annuities provide a return that is based on the performance of a particular market index, such as the S&P 500. The return on variable annuities is based on the performance of a portfolio of mutual funds, or sub-accounts, chosen by the annuity owner.

All three types of deferred annuities grow on a tax-deferred basis. Their owners pay taxes only when they make withdrawals, take a lump sum, or begin receiving income from the account. At that point, the money they receive is taxed at the same rate as their ordinary income.

The period when the investor is paying into the annuity is known as the accumulation phase (or savings phase). Once the investor elects to start receiving income, the payout phase (or income phase) begins. Many deferred annuities are structured to provide income for the rest of the owner's life and sometimes for their spouse's life, as well.

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What Are Deferred Annuities?

Special Considerations

Deferred annuities should be considered long-term investments because they are less liquid than, for example, mutual funds purchased outside of an annuity.

Most annuity contracts put strict limits on withdrawals, such as allowing just one per year. Withdrawals may also be subject to surrender fees charged by the insurer. In addition, if the account holder is under age 59½, they will generally face a 10% tax penalty on the amount of the withdrawal. That's on top of the income tax they have to pay on the withdrawal.

Before purchasing an annuity, buyers should make sure they have enough money in a liquid emergency fund, just in case.

Prospective buyers should also be aware that annuities often have high fees, compared with other types of retirement investments. Fees can also vary widely from one insurance company to another, so it pays to shop around.

Finally, deferred annuities often include a death benefit component. If the owner dies while the annuity is still in its accumulation phase, their heirs may receive some or all of the account's value. If the annuity has entered the payout phase, however, the insurer may simply keep the money, unless the contract includes a provision to keep paying benefits to the owner's heirs for a certain number of years.