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 Annuity 

Life spans in the United States have been increasing for over a hundred years. It is now common for people who reach retirement age to live 20 years or more in retirement, most of those years in good health. It's good to live a long and full life, but you want to be sure that your income lasts as long as you do, and its purchasing power is as strong as you are. How can you manage the risk of "outliving your assets"?

Annuities are a unique financial product that, along with Social Security, employer pensions, your 401(k) plan, IRA and other assets, can enhance your retirement security. Discuss this option with your insurance professional or financial planner when mapping out your retirement strategy.

What is an annuity?
In its most general sense, an annuity is an agreement for one person or organization to pay another a stream or series of payments. Usually the term "annuity" relates to a contract between you and a life insurance company, but a charity or a trust can take the place of the insurance company.

There are many categories of annuities. They can be classified by:

Nature of the underlying investment - fixed or variable

Primary purpose - accumulation or pay-out (deferred or immediate)

Nature of pay-out commitment - fixed period, fixed amount, or lifetime

Tax status - qualified or nonqualified

Premium payment arrangement - single premium or flexible premium
An annuity can be classified in several of these categories at once. For example, you might buy a nonqualified single premium deferred variable annuity. For brief definitions of these categories, click here.

In general, annuities have the following attractive features:

Tax deferral on investment earnings
Many investments are taxed year by year, but the investment earnings?capital gains and investment income?in annuities aren't taxable until you withdraw money. This tax deferral is also true of 401(k)s and IRAs; however, unlike these products, there are no limits on the amount you can put into an annuity. Moreover, the minimum withdrawal requirements for annuities are much more liberal than they are for 401(k)s and IRAs.

Protection from creditors
If you own an immediate annuity (that is, you are receiving money from an insurance company), generally the most that creditors can access is the payments as they're made, since the money you gave the insurance company now belongs to the company. Some state statutes and court decisions also protect some or all of the payments from those annuities. And your money in tax-favored retirement plans, such as IRAs and 401(k)s, are generally protected, whether invested in an annuity or not.

Lifetime income
A lifetime immediate annuity converts an investment into a stream of payments that last as long as you do. In concept, the payments come from three "pockets": Your investment, investment earnings and money from a pool of people in your group who do not live as long as actuarial tables forecast. It's the pooling that's unique to annuities, and it's what enables annuity companies to be able to guarantee you a lifetime income.

Benefits to your heirs
There is a common misconception about annuities that goes like this: if you start an immediate lifetime annuity and die soon after that, the insurance company keeps all of your investment in the annuity. That can happen, but it doesn't have to. To prevent it, buy a "guaranteed period" with the immediate annuity. A guaranteed period commits the insurance company to continue payments after you die to one or more beneficiaries you designate; the payments continue to the end of the stated guaranteed period?usually 10 or 20 years (measured from when you started receiving the annuity payments). Moreover, annuity benefits that pass to beneficiaries don't go through probate and aren't governed by your will.

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