Annuities

Annuityis an insurance policy which, in exchange for a sum of money, guarantees that the issuer will make a series of payments. These payments may be either level or increasing periodic payments for a fixed term of years or until the ending of a life or two lives, or even whichever is longer. It is also possible to structure the payments under an immediate annuity so that they vary with the performance of a specified set of investments, usually bond and equity mutual funds. Such a contract is called a variable immediate annuity.

The overarching characteristic of the immediate annuity is that it is a vehicle for distributing savings with a tax-deferred growth factor. A common use for an immediate annuity might be to provide a pension income. In the U.S., the tax treatment of a non-qualified immediate annuity is that every payment is a combination of a return of principal (which part is not taxed) and income (which is taxed at ordinary income rates, not capital gain rates). Immediate annuities funded as an IRA do not have any tax advantages, but typically the distribution satisfies the IRS required minimum distribution (RMD);it may satisfy the RMD requirement for other IRA accounts of the owner.

Annuity contracts in the United States are defined by the Internal Revenue Code and regulated by the individual states. Variable annuities have features of both life insurance and investment products. In the U.S., annuity insurance may be issued only by life insurance companies, although private annuity contracts may be arranged between donors to non-profits to reduce taxes. Insurance companies are regulated by the states, so contracts or options that may be available in some states may not be available in others. Their federal tax treatment, however, is governed by the Internal Revenue Code. Variable annuities are regulated by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the sale of variable annuities is overseen by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) (the largest non-governmental regulator for all securities firms doing business in the United States).

There are two possible phases for an annuity, one phase in which the customer deposits and accumulates money into an account (the deferral phase), and another phase in which customers receive payments for some period of time (the annuity or income phase). During this latter phase, the insurance company makes income payments that may be set for a stated period of time, such as five years, or continue until the death of the customer(s) (the "annuitant(s)") named in the contract. Annuitization over a lifetime can have a death benefit guarantee over a certain period of time, such as ten years. Annuity contracts with a deferral phase always have an annuity phase and are called deferred annuities.

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