What Is An Annuity? The Complete Guide To Understanding Annuities (Definition)

Shawn Plummer

CEO, The Annuity Expert

What’s an annuity? An annuity is a financial product that helps with retirement planning. Annuities work in many ways and can benefit just about every retiree, especially those who want to ensure a steady, guaranteed income stream in retirement. However, many kinds of annuities are available, so it’s essential to research before deciding if this type of investment is right for you. This comprehensive guide will discuss the basics of annuities and why they might be a good fit for your retirement portfolio.

What Is An Annuity?

What are annuities? According to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, an annuity definition is a contract between a consumer and an insurance company created primarily for retirement planning purposes. The life insurance company offers the investor tax-deferred growth for retirement savings plans in exchange for a lump sum. Life insurance companies also promise to regularly pay an income during retirement for a set period or the rest of the owner’s life.

How Do Annuities Work?

The purchaser pays a premium to the insurance company, and the insurance company provides a contractually bound series of funds or benefits to the policy owner. At death, the insurance company then provides the remainder of the cash value (if any) to the designated beneficiary. These are the basics explained.

Annuities are considered an actual insurance product due to the amount of risk. The annuity company counts on the insured to live long enough (longevity risk). The premium used to purchase the retirement plan and any interest earned exceeds the policy’s death benefit.

  • Accumulation Phase: The accumulation phase refers to the period your annuity grows before paying you a retirement income.
  • Distribution Phase: The annuity definition explains the accumulated money is converted into a series of payments for life or a fixed number of years. This payout phase is when the policy owner receives payments or lifetime withdrawals from the annuity company.

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Can You Lose Your Money In An Annuity?

Annuities are long-term investments divided into two categories:

  • Insurance-based annuities
  • Investment-based annuities

First, your principal amount can not lose money to stock market volatility in insurance-based annuities. Most annuities are insurance products, and insurance protects against market risk. Insurance-based examples include:

  • Traditional Fixed or an MYGA
  • Fixed Indexed Annuities (Equity Indexed Annuities)
  • Long Term Care Annuities
  • Single-Premium Immediate Annuities (SPIA)
  • Deferred Income and Longevity Annuities
  • Qualifying Longevity Annuity Contract (QLAC)

Investing involves risk. Your principal can lose money in investment-based annuity products (securities) like investing in stocks, bonds, and mutual funds. Variable Annuities and Registered Linked Annuities are sold by a licensed financial advisor and are considered investment-based and regulated by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Investment-based contracts include:

  • Variable annuities
  • Buffer annuities

Who Buys Annuities?

The following video explains why a consumer will purchase an annuity contract.

The Primary Benefits Of An Annuity

The primary investment objective of annuities is to provide guaranteed income to retirees and accumulate funds to provide future income payments for pre-retirees. The three primary benefits of annuity insurance are:

Provide Guaranteed Income: The ultimate purpose is to secure a financial future to ensure the investor will get a steady income stream in retirement. Customers can purchase one of these retirement vehicles to supplement a paycheck during retirement as if they were still working to fund day-to-day living expenses. The customer layers the compensation on top of their Social Security check. The guaranteed retirement income will be paid to the customer over a set period or for the rest of their life. Inflation protection is also available.

Tax-Deferred Growth: Annuity investments grow tax-deferred, which means the retirement savings plan is not taxed until a withdrawal is made, similar to an individual retirement account (IRA), 401k, or Pension Plan. These retirement plans share a common tax treatment, which is tax deferral. Tax deferral is a tax advantage from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), delaying paying the tax on investment gains until the owner withdraws money for income purposes. Once an owner receives payments, the guaranteed annuity income stream is subject to ordinary income tax. If retirement income is withdrawn too early, tax implications are enforced, like IRA and 401(k) plans.

Long-Term Care Insurance: Other investment objectives include paying for LTC. Insurance companies have developed benefits and riders to help offset the ever-increasing cost of long-term care. A few companies have even created deferred annuities to offer tax-free benefits to pay for nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and home healthcare.

How An Annuity Contract Is Structured

There are three parts to an annuity contract: the contract owner, annuitant, and beneficiary.

  • Owner: The contract owner is the owner of the annuity. The owner can purchase and fund annuities, change the beneficiary, withdraw money, pay the premiums, surrender the contract, and make any changes before annuitizing the insurance contract. The contract owner can be a person or an entity such as a trust or charity.
  • Annuitant: The annuitant is insured and must be a person, not an entity. The annuitant can be different from the contract owner, but both are the same in most cases. Any lifetime payments are based on the annuitant’s life expectancy.
  • Beneficiary: The beneficiary is the designated recipient of the annuity’s proceeds. The beneficiary can be either a person or an entity.

Contract Types

  • Deferred Annuity Contracts: A deferred contract is a vehicle for accumulating money (cash value) with the option of converting retirement savings into a source of guaranteed income for life. Deferred annuities will grow on a tax-deferred basis, just like a 401k or IRA.
    • A tax-deferred basis means you don’t have to pay ordinary income taxes on annual earnings like other savings plans such as a Certificate of Deposit (CD). Instead, you pay the income taxes as you withdraw income from the deferred annuity.
  • Immediate Annuity Contracts: Immediate contracts are precisely the opposite of deferred contracts. The contract owner is converting their original investment immediately (within the first 12 months) into a guaranteed series of income paychecks. The SPIA is built strictly for taking a lump-sum payment of money, giving the money to the insurance company, and generating a source of reliable income for you.
    • A common problem for pre-retirees is figuring out how to convert their long-saved retirement accounts (401k or IRA) into a monthly paycheck to live on and maintain that guaranteed income for the rest of their lives.
  • Single-Premium Deferred Annuities: These products are tax-deferred retirement accounts that allow a one-time initial investment into a contract with no option to add additional funds to the existing policy. Once you purchase a contract with a single payment, you can’t add more money to that contract. Instead, you will have to start a new contract for additional funds.
  • Flexible-Premium Deferred Annuities: Flexible-premium annuities are tax-deferred contracts that allow an owner to contribute additional funds to an existing policy during the contract’s accumulation period. If funds are added to a flexible-premium deferred annuity, the insurance company typically invests the added funds in a fixed account until the following anniversary or reset period.

Annuities Vs. Life Insurance Policies

Annuities are not life insurance. Annuities are the exact opposite of life insurance. A life insurance policy’s primary function is to create an estate for beneficiaries by periodically paying into a contract. An annuity’s primary function in terms of an estate is to liquidate an estate quicker by avoiding probate.

Another critical difference between annuities and life insurance is designed to protect against premature death. At the same time, annuities are designed to protect against longevity risk and running out of money.

Annuities are insurance policies for retirement. Life insurance is an insurance policy for death.

Is leaving money to your loved ones a high priority? If so, consider life insurance products. In some cases, you don’t have to take a medical exam. Instead, shop for life insurance quotes to see if they make sense. Coverage starts as low as $9.37 a month.

Is An Annuity A Good Investment?

With any retirement plan, there is risk and rewards. Risks and benefits with annuity products include:

Fixed Index
Principal ProtectionNoYesYesYesYesNo
Access To PrincipalYesYesYesNoNoYes
Control Over MoneyYesYesYesNoNoYes
Tax-Deferred GrowthYesYesYesNoNoYes
Guaranteed GrowthNoYesYesNoNoNo
Guaranteed IncomeYesYesYesYesYesYes
Inflation ProtectionYesYesNoYesYesYes
Death BenefitYesYesYesYes/NoYes/NoYes
LTC HelpYesYesYesNoNoYes

The Pros Of Annuities

  • Annuities are insurance-based retirement plan that guarantees a fixed income for the rest of your life. Consumers can feel relief that the guaranteed amount of income will never run out in retirement.
  • Consumers can plan their financial future today and determine how much money needs to be saved to generate a fixed income.
  • Different annuities can help pay for LTC expenses, such as a nursing home, assisted living, home health care, and adult daycare.
  • Annuities can offer an enhanced death benefit with no underwriting that may avoid probate. The beneficiary receives either the standard or enhanced death benefit.
  • Some policy owners can grow their retirement savings faster with tax-deferred growth and triple compounding.
  • Fixed deferred annuities and Multi-Year Guaranteed Annuities (MYGA) offer higher fixed interest rates than a CD, and taxes are not paid annually.
  • Either annuitization or a guaranteed lifetime income rider can often help with inflation with the Cost of Living Adjustments.
  • Most deferred annuities (except variable annuities) offer peace of mind. Customers won’t lose their money to market downturns, and their principal is protected at the guaranteed minimum in such cases as a stock market crash.
  • Fees can be minimal if any at all.
  • With most deferred products, clients get to “lock in” their gains vs. the market’s ups and downs of financial planning.
  • One expected advantage of a long-term investment is that you have time to ride out the ups and downs of the market. This is especially true with an annuity since the payments are spread out over a long period of time. Another advantage of an annuity is that it can provide a source of income you can’t outlive. Therefore, choosing an annuity with a long time horizon can be a great way to build wealth and secure your financial future.

The Cons Of Annuities

  • In most cases, retirement annuities are long-term investments between you and the insurance company. The shortest contract currently is two years in length. Therefore, investors with short-term goals are not a good fit if they want their cash today or near future.
  • If a policy owner (annuitant) chooses to annuitize their annuity at retirement and start receiving payments, there is no turning the income stream off. This is a considerable disadvantage. The good news is you can add a lifetime income rider instead!
  • In most cases, there is limited liquidity, meaning while growing your retirement account, you may only have access to 10% of the contract value each year until the contract is expired.
  • Some would say you could earn more money in the market over the longer time horizons. This is very true, depending on where you’re currently at in your career timeline.
  • Investment strategy risks include losing money due to stock market volatility in variable or registered-index linked annuity contracts.
  • Annuities are not insured by the FDIC or any federal government agency but are backed by the claims-paying ability of the issuing insurance company. Luckily, every insurance company has a State Guaranty Association to back the provider in case of insolvency.

The Different Types Of Annuities

Annuities come in many forms. Did you know there are 13 different types of annuities today? Before you purchase an annuity, do your research. So let’s check out the options for retirement.

  • Here we’ll briefly go over each type of annuity.
  • Each has its pros and cons depending on your financial situation.
  • Each serves a specific purpose.
  • Not all annuities are created equal.

There are two main categories of annuities:

  1. Insurance products: No stock market volatility risk.
  2. Investment products: Stock market volatility risk.
Immediate AnnuityVariable Annuity
Fixed AnnuityBuffer Annuities
Fixed Indexed Annuity
Long-Term Care Annuity
Longevity Annuity
Medicaid Annuity

Within these two categories, there are two subcategories:

  1. Immediate Contracts
  2. Deferred Contracts
Immediate Annuities (SPIA)Fixed Annuities
Medicaid AnnuitiesFixed Index Annuities
Charitable Gift AnnuitiesVariable Annuities
Lottery PayoutBuffer Annuities
Pension PayoutsLong-Term Care Annuities
Deferred Income Annuities

Which Plan Is Best For Me?

  • Immediate Annuity: Immediate annuities (SPIA) is a contract (with no cash value) that will begin paying retirement income immediately. A contract owner exchanges a lump sum of money with an insurance company for an immediate stream of retirement income payments guaranteed for the contract’s specified period. Lottery payments are an example of an immediate annuity.
  • Variable Annuity: A variable annuity is an investment product for retirement planning that allows you to participate in investments, including stocks, bonds, and a mutual fund. You get all the upside and the downside potential with variable investment products.
    • Variable annuities offer greater risk than other contract types. Therefore, you must seek a financial professional to determine your risk tolerance to find the best tax-sheltered investment options.
  • Fixed Indexed Annuity: An indexed annuity is a type of fixed annuity for retirement that allows you to participate in a portion of the stock market’s positive performance while simultaneously providing principal protection from volatile market conditions. 
    • Your tax-sheltered retirement accounts get the opportunity to earn market gains with no downside potential and tax deferral. These accounts are also known as a fixed variable annuity.
  • Fixed Annuity: Fixed annuities are insurance policies for retirement planning that provide a fixed interest rate for a specific period, similar to a Certificate of Deposit (CD).  
    • Your retirement savings earn a guaranteed interest rate annually for a fixed time. Sometimes called a “CD annuity.”
  • Long Term Care Annuity: A LTC Annuity is an insurance policy, typically fixed annuities, that provide an enhanced tax-free benefit to supplement future payments to pay for qualified services and facilities.
  • Deferred Income Annuity: The Deferred Income Annuity (DIA) is a fixed income contract similar to a pension. A consumer exchanges a lump sum of money today for future annuity payments. The guaranteed income stream is irrevocable and can be distributed over time or for life.
  • Two-Tiered Annuity: A two-tier annuity is a fixed indexed contract. You invest money upfront, grow your investment during the accumulation period, and annuitize your future contract values into an irrevocable fixed income stream. Annuitization is required.
  • Qualified Longevity Annuity Contract (QLAC): A QLAC is a Deferred Income Annuity (DIA) with tax advantages that defer Required Minimum Distributions (RMD) on qualified retirement savings plans.
  • Structured Settlement: A Structured Settlement is a structured, irrevocable series of periodic payments from an insurance company commonly court-ordered similar to an immediate annuity.
  • Secondary Market Annuity: A secondary market annuity resells an annuitized distribution (fixed income stream payments) in exchange for a lump sum.
  • Medicaid Annuity: A MCA is a unique annuity contract that distributes an immediate stream of income meant to financially maintain a healthy elderly spouse’s lifestyle while their unhealthy spouse receives Medicaid.
  • Charitable Gift Annuity: A charitable gift annuity is a type of annuity where that transfers by a donor to a charitable organization. In return, the donor receives monthly payments for retirement income purposes. If the annuity’s actuarial value is less than the value of the donation, then the difference in value is declared a charitable deduction for federal tax purposes. The annuity payments to the donor are tax-free partial returns based on actuarial life expectancy tables. The income stream is not guaranteed and not backed by the financial strength of an insurance company or a federal government agency.
  • Registered Index-Linked Annuity: The Buffer Annuity is a type of annuity hybrid of fixed and variable annuities. When a market index performance is positive, the plan may earn interest, limited by a cap or participation rate. Conversely, if the stock market index performance declines, the retirement plan will earn zero interest and lose value up to a “floor.”

Debunking Annuity Myths

  • Hidden fees – Your policy could have no charges depending on your product. However, with that said, annuities do enforce surrender charges on withdrawals greater than your free allowance during the surrender charge period. In addition, some products have administrative fees and additional fees for optional riders and benefits, enhancing your policy and providing more annuity benefits.
  • Annuities are complicated. – There are many types of annuities. But, for the most part, these retirement plans are relatively simple, with many options to add on. The main two components are the base contract and the optional lifetime income benefit that provides a fixed income similar to a pension or Social Security Benefits.
  • I can lose money. – Unless you have a Variable or Registered Linked Annuity, your money is not at risk of stock market volatility.
  • No liquidity. – Most deferred annuities allow for penalty-free withdrawals (after one year), systematic withdrawals, and waivers to assist in health-related issues such as terminal illness, nursing homes, or home health care. However, you lose control over your initial investment if you annuitize your contract or purchase an income annuity.
  • No money for beneficiaries. – Insurance companies typically waive a surrender charge at death if the plan has not been annuitized. Loved ones will receive the remaining account or cash surrender value (whichever is higher)and typically avoid probate. Probate is a judicial process to establish the validity of a will. Assets in an estate typically cannot be passed down to the beneficiaries until the probate court has established the will’s validity and authorized the executor to distribute them. Probate can be lengthy and expensive.
  • Pay fees to purchase an annuity. – Typically, you are not required to pay a fee to a financial professional such as an insurance agent, financial advisor, or RIA to purchase a policy. However, brokerage services are compensated through a commission from the insurance company when selling annuities. Find another advisor if your financial professional charges you a fee and collects a commission specifically from an annuity sale. Retirement annuity providers build the commission into the plan when their actuaries design the product.

Annuity Riders and Enhanced Benefits

What is an annuity rider? A rider is a benefit typically added to the retirement plan to serve a specific purpose like guaranteed lifetime income, estate planning, extra liquidity, and long-term care planning.

Annuities provide several benefits. While the guaranteed lifetime income benefit (annuitize or income rider) is the primary, the other benefits explained below are significant.

  • Income Rider: An Income Rider or Guaranteed Lifetime Withdrawal Benefit (GLWB) is an optional benefit or “add-on” that distributes a steady retirement income for life. Guaranteed income riders typically come at an additional cost. Use our annuity calculator to get a quote. The guaranteed income can be turned on or off.
  • Enhanced Death Benefit Rider: Some annuities offer an enhanced benefit that delivers a more significant inheritance than the Accumulation Value to the policyholder’s heirs. Enhanced death benefits are often used as an alternative to life insurance. This life insurance alternative requires no medical underwriting, typically.
  • Return of Premium: Return of Premium is a feature where a contract owner can terminate their current contract without surrender charges at any given time during the surrender period and receive their original investment back (minus fees and withdrawals). 
  • Accumulated Penalty-Free Withdrawals: Accumulated Penalty-Free Withdrawals are unused penalty-free withdrawals that can roll over to the following year, increasing the client’s penalty-free liquidity until withdrawn. 
  • Nursing Home Waiver: The waiver of surrender charges during the surrender period if a client is admitted to a qualified nursing home facility.
  • Terminal Illness Waiver: Waive a surrender charge during the surrender period if a client is diagnosed terminally ill and not expected to live more than 12 months.
  • Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA): A Cost of Living Adjustment is a feature on an income rider that increases the owner’s dollar amount to help with inflation. Imagine receiving a stream of income that increases throughout retirement.
  • Spousal Continuation: Spousal continuation is a standard provision for a surviving spouse upon death to continue the deceased’s contract for at least the remainder of the initial term instead of receiving the account value in a lump sum. Most deferred annuity contracts offer this as an option.

How to Find an Annuity Death Benefit

Beneficiaries can find death benefits on the deceased’s annuities by contacting the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC). A death certificate from the funeral home that conducted the burial or cremation would improve the NAIC’s search for any forgotten policies. The policy locator service is free with no limitations, and the process could take up to 90 business days. Be prepared to have as much personal or account information on the deceased as possible.


Now we’ve gone over the various types of annuities available, and it becomes a matter of which is the best plan for you, depending on your financial goals.

  • Income Annuities can offer the highest guaranteed monthly income but have the least flexible insurance contracts. The annuity payments will not stop once the company begins paying money to the policy owner.
  • Fixed Annuities are the most conservative financial product type in which you receive a fixed interest rate for a set period of time.
  • Fixed Indexed Annuities are the most moderate product types. You get to participate in a portion of the market upside potentials but have all the downside protection from market risk and provide regular payments for life. The variable rate of return is typically higher than fixed annuities. Owners can earn a fixed rate as well.
  • Variable Annuities are the most aggressive contract type in which you can participate in all market fluctuations. You should seek an investment professional before purchasing a variable product.

Try to find an issuing insurance company with a high rating and financial strength. We can help you meet your long-term goals based on the information provided. In addition, The Annuity Expert will recommend products based on your hyper-specific needs. Finally, request a quote from our brokerage services. We offer the largest selection of products available.

What Is An Annuity? How Do Annuities Work? What Is The Annuity Definition?

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Frequently Asked Questions

How do annuities work?

A retirement annuity is a long-term investment that an insurance company makes to protect you from outliving your money. Your purchase payments (what you contribute) are changed into periodic payments that may last for the rest of your life through annuitization.

Is an annuity a good investment?

Annuities are a good investment for people who want a reliable income during retirement. Annuities are insurance products, not an equity investment like a mutual fund with high growth. The guaranteed protection makes annuities an excellent balance to a financial portfolio for someone close to or already in retirement.

What are the most significant disadvantages of annuities?

The primary disadvantage is that annuities can be complex, your upside potential may be limited, you could pay more taxes in the future, high fees on certain products, penalties during the cash surrender period, irrevocable guarantees, and inflation erode the annuity’s value.

Do annuities make money?

Fixed annuities earn a guaranteed rate similar to a Certificate of Deposit. Fixed indexed annuities earn interest based on the positive performance of a stock market index without risk. Variable annuities make money based on the performance of subaccounts and have risk. Immediate annuities earn little to no interest.

What is the safest type of annuity?

Fixed and fixed indexed annuities are the safest type. Fixed annuities are guaranteed income products. They grow at a fixed rate, protecting the owner from market volatility. This means that no matter what happens in the stock market or with interest rates, they will always have a guaranteed minimum payment earned on their investment. Fixed indexed annuities take the safety of a fixed annuity and add the potential for upside growth. They offer protection from market downturns while allowing the owner to participate in market gains up to a cap. The annuity owner’s investment is protected if the stock market goes down. However, if the stock market goes up, the annuity owner can participate in the gains up to a certain point.

What is an annuity account?

A financial product allows you to save for retirement or other long-term goals. Accounts are tax-deferred, meaning you won’t have to pay taxes on the money you contribute until you withdraw it later.

What is annuity income?

Annuity income is a fixed, regular payment that you receive from an annuity. The payments can be made monthly, quarterly, or even annually, based on the amount of money you have invested in your annuity account.

What is the definition of an annuitant?

An annuitant is a person who owns an annuity account. The annuitant is the one who will receive the monthly payments.

What is the primary function of an annuity?

The primary function is to provide a stream of payments over a set period of time. Annuities can be used for retirement income, or they can be used as an investment vehicle to help grow your wealth over time.

What does annuity mean?

Annuity means a series of payments made at fixed intervals. For example, an annuity can be a stream of payments made by an insurance company to a policyholder. The annuity payments may be made monthly, quarterly, or annually, and they can last for a specified number of years or the lifetime of the annuity owner.

Shawn Plummer

CEO, The Annuity Expert

I’m a licensed financial professional focusing on annuities and insurance for more than a decade. My former role was training financial advisors, including for a Fortune Global 500 insurance company. I’ve been featured in Time Magazine, Yahoo! Finance, MSN, SmartAsset, Entrepreneur, Bloomberg, The Simple Dollar, U.S. News and World Report, and Women’s Health Magazine.

The Annuity Expert is an online insurance agency servicing consumers across the United States. My goal is to help you take the guesswork out of retirement planning or find the best insurance coverage at the cheapest rates for you. 

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