A variable annuity is an investment contract with an insurance company where you invest money into your choice of a variety of sub-accounts. Sub-accounts are similar to mutual funds, where money from a large number of investors is pooled and invested in accordance with specific investment objectives. Like mutual funds, sub-accounts may invest in different categories of stock or interest earning investments.
One characteristic of a variable annuity is the tax deferral of gains until the funds are withdrawn. However, upon distribution the gains are taxable at regular income tax rates, as opposed to capital gains rates that may be available for mutual funds. Additionally, there is no step-up in basis upon death for assets held in variable annuities.
Variable annuities are generally more appropriate for non-retirement accounts because gains within a retirement account are already tax deferred. Traditional retirement accounts and Roth IRAs meet the tax deferral needs for most investors. However, in some cases a variable annuity may be attractive to a high income investor who has maximized his traditional retirement options and needs additional opportunities for tax deferral. This is especially true for an investor who is currently in a high tax bracket and expects to be in a lower tax bracket in retirement.
When investing in variable annuities, with non-retirement money, there is no requirement to take a Required Minimum Distribution at 70 ½. However, there is generally a 10% penalty on withdrawals made before 59 1/2. Trades can be made within a variable annuity account without immediate tax consequences. The entire gain will be taxable upon withdrawal. There is no annual contribution limit for variable annuities, and you can make non-taxable transfers between annuity companies using a 1035 exchange. However, you may have to pay a surrender charge if you have held the annuity for less than seven to ten years, and you purchased it from a commissioned adviser. Before buying an annuity, read the fine print to fully understand all of the fees and penalties associated with the product. Most variable annuities have early withdrawal penalties and a higher expense structure than mutual funds.
A variable annuity may be an option for someone who wants to purchase an insurance policy to buffer the risk of losing money in the market. For many investors, due to the long term growth in the stock market, this guarantee may be come at too high a price. Some investors are willing to pay additional fees in exchange for the peace of mind that a guaranteed withdrawal benefit can provide. Guaranteed minimum withdrawal benefits (GMWB) can be very complex and have some significant restrictions. Additionally, some products offer a guaranteed death benefit for an extra fee. Read the contract carefully and make sure you understand the product before you buy.
Due to the high costs, lack of flexibility, complexity and unfavorable tax treatment variable annuities are not beneficial for many investors.