An annuity is a contract between you and an insurance company, under which you make a lump-sum payment or series of payments. In return, the insurer agrees to make periodic payments to you beginning immediately or at some future date. Annuities typically offer tax-deferred growth of earnings and may include a death benefit that will pay your beneficiary a guaranteed minimum amount, such as your total purchase payments.

There are generally two types of annuities—fixed and variable. In a fixed annuity, the insurance company guarantees that you will earn a minimum rate of interest during the time that your account is growing. The insurance company also guarantees that the periodic payments will be a guaranteed amount per dollar in your account. These periodic payments may last for a definite period, such as 20 years, or an indefinite period, such as your lifetime or the lifetime of you and your spouse.

In a variable annuity, by contrast, you can choose to invest your purchase payments from among a range of different investment options, typically mutual funds. The rate of return on your purchase payments, and the amount of the periodic payments you will eventually receive, will vary depending on the performance of the investment options you have selected.

An equity – indexed annuity, is a special type of annuity. During the accumulation period – when you make either a lump sum payment or a series of payments – the insurance company credits you with a return that is based on changes in an equity index, such as the S&P 500 Composite Stock Price Index. The insurance company typically guarantees a minimum return. Guaranteed minimum return rates vary. After the accumulation period, the insurance company will make periodic payments to you under the terms of your contract, unless you choose to receive your contract value in a lump sum.

Variable annuities are securities regulated by the SEC. Fixed annuities are not securities and are not regulated by the SEC. Equity-indexed annuities combine features of traditional insurance products (guaranteed minimum return) and traditional securities (return linked to equity markets). Depending on the mix of features, an equity-indexed annuity may or may not be a security. The typical equity-indexed annuity is not registered with the SEC.

Advantages of Annuities

Annuities can be helpful in some situations. In general, some benefits are:

  • Tax-deferred growth and compounding within the annuity contract
  • Guaranteed rates of return on your dollars
  • Guaranteed lifetime payments if you annuitize (in some cases you don’t even have to annuitize in order to receive this benefit)
  • Other features that may be important to you.

Note that the guarantees are only as strong as the insurance company that issued the annuity. In other words, if the insurance company fails, the promise is no good. I recommend mitigating this risk by using only the strongest insurance companies out there.