Favorable tax treatment is one of the main reasons for buying an annuity. But what exactly are the tax benefits? And are there any drawbacks? It's important to know the answers to these questions before deciding whether to purchase an annuity.
Of course, any information pertaining to taxes is complex, full of exceptions, and subject to change. This discussion deals with the general rules for taxation of annuities--you should consult a tax advisor for more specific information before you take any action.
Taxation of premiums
Annuities are typically funded with after-tax dollars. So, the money you pay into an annuity (in the form of premiums) is nondeductible. By placing funds in an annuity, you will not realize any current income tax savings, unlike putting money into a traditional IRA, 401(k) plan, or other employer-sponsored retirement plan.
Unlike most investments, increases in the value of an annuity from interest, dividends, or capital gains are not currently taxable. Generally, annuity funds are allowed to grow tax deferred until they're distributed, at which time the owner will pay ordinary income tax on all gains.
Taxation of premature withdrawals
Withdrawals taken before age 59½ may be subject to a 10 percent IRS penalty tax unless an exception applies. When you make a withdrawal from an annuity, the IRS assumes that earnings are withdrawn first. The 10 percent penalty applies to the earnings portion of a withdrawal. So, early withdrawals are costly from a tax standpoint.
For example, if your annuity has grown by $1,000 since you purchased it, a $500 withdrawal would be considered 100 percent interest and would be subject to the 10 percent penalty--in this case, $50. In addition, because the entire withdrawal represents earnings, it would be subject to ordinary income tax. If you are in the 25 percent tax bracket, your income tax liability on the withdrawal would be $125. Adding this to the early withdrawal penalty, $175 of your $500 withdrawal would end up in the IRS's pocket.
Taxation of scheduled distributions
If you choose an annuitization option, you will begin receiving regular distributions from your annuity over a predetermined period of time. Each distribution consists of two components: principal (a return of the money you paid into the annuity) and earnings. The percentages of principal and earnings of each distribution will depend on the annuitization option chosen. Again, the earnings portion of each distribution will be treated as ordinary income. Also, depending on the annuitization option chosen, the 10 percent penalty rule may not apply.
Caution: Annuity guarantees are subject to the claims-paying ability of the annuity issuer.
Taxation of lump-sum distributions
Taking a lump-sum distribution of your annuity funds can have many consequences. If you make this election within the first few years after purchasing your annuity, you may be subject to surrender charges imposed by the issuer. In any case, the earnings portion of the distribution will be treated as ordinary income in the year you take the distribution. Also, keep in mind that a large lump-sum distribution could actually push you into a higher tax bracket, dramatically increasing your tax liability.
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