The bottom line:
What is a fixed annuity?
A fixed annuity is a financial product that guarantees a specific rate of return—for example, 2%—and provides an income stream in retirement. With a fixed interest rate, you know in advance how much your annuity will grow and how much income it will pay out. That predictability helps some people feel more comfortable about the stability of their retirement plans.
What does a fixed annuity offer?
A fixed annuity offers several key features: income in retirement, a fixed rate of return, tax-deferred growth and potential to pass money on to your heirs.
Income in retirement
Like other annuities, a fixed annuity can guarantee that you receive ongoing income payments starting in retirement and continuing for a set period or the rest of your life.
Fixed-rate of return
A fixed annuity's value increases over time, based on a fixed interest rate. Some people prefer this option over a variable annuity, which earns or loses value based on how the market performs.
As with a 401(k) or a traditional IRA, a fixed annuity’s earnings are tax-deferred. Taxes aren't taken out while the annuity is growing, which leaves more money there to earn a return. Later, when you receive income payments, that money is subject to income tax. But many people expect to be in a lower tax bracket during retirement than they are during their working years. So, by delaying taxation on their annuity's earnings, they expect to pay at a lower rate.
Potential to pass money on to your heirs
Most fixed annuities also offer a standard death benefit. That’s money paid to your beneficiaries if you pass away before annuity payouts begin. Optional death benefits may require a policy rider that comes with an additional cost.
Fixed annuities vs. variable annuities
Usually, a fixed annuity only promises a modest return. But its guaranteed rate protects against the possibility of loss and offers the advantage of knowing ahead of time exactly how much you’ll receive in income payments later.
When the market is strong, a variable annuity’s returns will likely be higher than a fixed annuity’s. But if the market trends downward, a variable annuity could earn less—or even lose value—compared to a fixed annuity containing the same principal amount.
Single premium vs. flexible premium fixed annuities
As with most annuities, you have options for how to fund a fixed annuity.
Single premium fixed annuities
Funded with a one-time, lump sum. Often done by rolling over a 401(k) or IRA or by using money obtained through the sale of another asset.
Flexible premium fixed annuities
Funded with a series of premium payments. As you continue making payments, the annuity's value grows at your fixed rate of return.
Immediate vs. deferred fixed annuities
Immediate and deferred fixed annuities differ based on how quickly they begin providing income.
Immediate fixed annuities
An immediate fixed annuity starts its payouts shortly after you put money in. You fund it with a single premium. Soon (within a year—and it may be within 30 days), it starts paying you income. That leaves little time for earnings to accumulate.
Deferred fixed annuities
A deferred fixed annuity requires a waiting period between the time you start putting money in and the time you receive its income stream. You can fund a deferred fixed annuity with a single premium or a series of payments. Your income withdrawals begin when you retire (or at some other future date, as stated in your contract). Between the time you start making payments and the time you begin taking withdrawals, earnings build up. That adds to the size of the income payments you receive. Many people use deferred fixed annuities as part of their overall retirement strategy.
Lifetime vs. period-certain payout options
With a fixed annuity, you may have options for how to receive your payouts. Among those options are lifetime and period-certain payouts. These differ based on the duration of the income payments they provide.
1. Lifetime payout option
A lifetime payout option continues a fixed annuity's payouts throughout a person's life. There are different types of lifetime payout options. A single-life option provides income until you pass away. A joint-and-survivor option provides income to both you and your spouse. Payouts continue through the life of whoever lives the longest.
2. Period-certain payout option
A period-certain payout option (sometimes called a fixed-period or term-certain option) stops your fixed annuity's income payments on a scheduled end date. If you live past that point, you'll stop receiving income. However, if you pass away before the scheduled end date, the annuity's income payments may continue and go to your beneficiary or estate. (That depends on your contract. Some fixed annuities with period-certain payouts stop paying income on their end date or upon your death, whichever comes first.)
Fixed annuities vs. indexed annuities
In addition to fixed and variable annuities, there are other types of annuities. One type is an indexed annuity. Some or all of an indexed annuity’s return is based on the performance of a particular market index (for example, the S&P 500). However, there may be a cap on the maximum return you can receive. Or your return may be limited to a percentage (for example, 70%) of the index’s actual return rate.
What are the risks of a fixed annuity?
Fixed annuities tend to pose less financial risk than variable annuities and other investment products whose values rise and fall with the market. But that doesn't mean fixed annuities come with no risks at all.
For one thing, annuities are insurance contracts. That means their payouts are guaranteed by the insurance companies that issue them—not the FDIC, SIPC or any other federal agency. So, it's important to pay attention to the company issuing an annuity you're considering. Look for firms with high marks from objective industry rating agencies such as AM Best, Fitch, Moody’s, and Standard & Poor’s.
Depending on the details of your contract, your fixed annuity might pay out less than you paid in premiums. For example, this could occur if you choose a single-life payout option and pass away shortly after your income payments begin. The issuing insurance company might not be obligated to make payments to your spouse or estate afterward. If this possibility concerns you, you might want to look into joint-and-survivor or period-certain payout options, which could continue payments to your spouse or other beneficiaries after your death.
Although you know in advance how much you’ll receive from your fixed annuity, you can’t predict the rate of inflation. Some payouts on annuities don’t get cost-of-living adjustments, so their buying power decreases over time. However, some payout options do adjust their income payments for inflation—or they offer that feature as an optional contract rider.
As with most annuities, if you want to withdraw money from your fixed annuity before you’re scheduled to receive payments from it, you’ll likely incur a penalty charge—which can sometimes be hefty. That can dramatically decrease your return. In some cases (depending on when you make the withdrawal and how much you take out), it can even result in a net loss.
Despite the risks that fixed annuities can pose, they are a relatively low-risk product because they guarantee a continuing income stream and a fixed rate of return. That differs from variable annuities and other financial products—such as stocks and mutual funds—that rely on unpredictable markets to determine their returns.
You can minimize additional risks by working with a financial advisor who can help you create a comprehensive retirement strategy. That can help you feel confident about whether a fixed annuity is a wise choice for you.
Are fixed annuities securities?
Fixed annuities are not securities because they offer a guaranteed interest rate. The return you earn isn't affected by market fluctuations, and the insurance company offering the product takes on all the investment risk.
In contrast, variable annuities are considered securities because the return you earn is tied to the market performance of the investments in your subaccounts. That means you bear the investment risk. Variable annuities are subject to regulation by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).
How are fixed annuity premiums invested?
Fixed annuities are insurance contracts issued by insurance companies. They invest your premium payments into portfolios largely made up of bonds and other stable, high-quality investments. But ultimately, the performance of those investments doesn't affect your return. You’re always guaranteed the fixed rate of return stated in your contract.
How can you use a fixed annuity?
Say you're 15 years from retirement. You have some money saved up and invested through a 401(k) or an IRA. But you're not sure they’ll provide enough money to support you through your retirement years.
If you have money available now—or can fit a new recurring premium payment into your budget—you could put it into a fixed annuity. That would ensure that, on a designated date (your 65th birthday, for example), you’d start receiving additional income payments that could continue through the rest of your life.
Your fixed annuity's interest rate could help you plan for retirement. You’d know precisely how much income the annuity would provide, which could help inform other decisions. For example, you might feel comfortable taking on higher risk with other investments, knowing that regardless of how they perform, the income payments from your fixed annuity would still be there for you throughout retirement.
When should you consider a fixed annuity?
That depends on many factors, including your age, your financial goals, your retirement plans, the resources you have available, the amount of risk you wish to take on, and how long you expect to live.
Have you maxed out your allowed Roth IRA or 401(k) contributions? Would you like to put more money away to help support yourself (and, perhaps, your spouse) in retirement? If so, a fixed annuity may be worth considering. Knowing you're getting a guaranteed return—and an ongoing income stream—can help build your confidence in your overall retirement savings plan.
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