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Annuities As A Retirement Income Option

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GAO Report Suggests Annuities as Retirement Income Option

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports that financial experts typically recommend that middle-net-worth retirees use a portion of their savings to buy an income annuity (immediate annuity) to help meet necessary retirement expenses. The report, Ensuring Income throughout Retirement Requires Difficult Choices, finds that while Social Security continues to be the primary source of fixed income in retirement, it is not enough to meet the income needs of most retirees.

Also, the shift from employer-sponsored defined benefit pension plans to defined contribution plans, coupled with increasing life expectancies, is forcing retirees to assume more responsibility for managing their savings to ensure that they have sufficient income throughout retirement. An income annuity is an alternative to self-managing savings that offers retirees a steady source of income they won't outlive.

Why income annuities? Generally, an income annuity, also referred to as an immediate annuity, is issued by an insurance company. It is typically purchased with a single lump sum of money (premium) paid to the issuer in exchange for payments made for life (single life income annuity), or for the joint lives of the annuity owner and his or her spouse or partner (joint and survivor income annuity). Payments generally begin no later than one year from the date the issuer receives the premium. The GAO report suggests income annuities:

  • Help protect retirees against the risk of underperforming investments

  • Help protect retirees against the risk of outliving their savings (longevity risk)

  • Help relieve retirees of the task of managing their investments at older ages when their capacity to do so may be diminished, and

  • Provide a base of guaranteed income that may serve as a dependable "cushion" for retirees who might otherwise spend too little for fear of outliving their assets (guarantees are subject to the claims-paying ability of the annuity issuer)

Why income annuities may not work Income annuities aren’t for everyone nor do they work in every situation. Particularly, income annuities may not be appropriate for people:

  • With predictably shorter-than-normal life expectancies

  • Who have limited savings, since the funds used to purchase income annuities generally are not available to cover large, unanticipated expenses

  • Who are concerned about income taxes, since the income from annuities purchased with nonqualified funds is typically taxed as ordinary income, whereas some or all of the investment return on liquidated savings in stocks, bonds, or mutual funds may be taxed at lower capital gains or dividend tax rates

  • Who want to provide a bequest of their assets at their death

When might an income annuity be appropriate? The GAO study describes examples when an income annuity may be appropriate. In one scenario, the study suggests that a household with a total net wealth of $350,000 to $370,000, of which $170,000 to $190,000 is savings (and which does not have a defined benefit pension plan), should consider purchasing an income annuity with a portion of their savings. Retirees with defined benefit pension plans should consider an income annuity option rather than taking a lump-sum rollover to an IRA. Conversely, an income annuity may not be as useful for households with significantly greater net wealth or those households with appreciably less net wealth.

Proposals to access annuities and increase financial literacy Typically, defined contribution plan sponsors do not offer account holders income annuities as an option. In response, the study makes several recommendations to promote the availability of income annuities for defined contribution plan distributions. These proposals include legislation that would require plan sponsors to offer income annuities as a choice to plan participants, or set income annuities as the default election for plan participants when accessing defined contribution plan benefits. The study also recommends options aimed at improving individuals' financial literacy, particularly concerning the risks and available choices for managing income throughout retirement.

Report recommendations The report seeks to offer options to retirees on how to have an adequate income throughout retirement. Generally, the study suggests that middle-income retirees should consider delaying Social Security retirement benefits at least until full retirement age, consider working longer, draw down savings systematically and strategically (typically at an annual rate of between 3% and 6%), elect an annuity instead of a lump sum withdrawal for employer-sponsored defined benefit plans, and for retirees who don't have a defined benefit plan, purchase an income annuity with some of their savings.

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