Variable annuities have become a part of the retirement and investment plans of many Americans. Before you buy a variable annuity, you should know some of the basics – and be prepared to ask your insurance agent, broker, financial planner, or other financial professional lots of questions about whether a variable annuity is right for you.
A variable annuity has two phases: an accumulation phase and a payout phase.
During the accumulation phase, you make purchase payments, which you can allocate to a number of investment options. For example, you could designate 40% of your purchase payments to a bond fund, 40% to a U.S. stock fund, and 20% to an international stock fund. The money you have allocated to each mutual fund investment option will increase or decrease over time, depending on the fund's performance. In addition, variable annuities often allow you to allocate part of your purchase payments to a fixed account. A fixed account, unlike a mutual fund, pays a fixed rate of interest. The insurance company may reset this interest rate periodically, but it will usually provide a guaranteed minimum (e.g., 3% per year).
Example: You purchase a variable annuity with an initial purchase payment of $10,000. You allocate 50% of that purchase payment ($5,000) to a bond fund, and 50% ($5,000) to a stock fund. Over the following year, the stock fund has a 10% return, and the bond fund has a 5% return. At the end of the year, your account has a value of $10,750 ($5,500 in the stock fund and $5,250 in the bond fund), minus fees and charges (discussed below).
Your most important source of information about a variable annuity's investment options is the prospectus. Request the prospectuses for the mutual fund investment options. Read them carefully before you allocate your purchase payments among the investment options offered. You should consider a variety of factors with respect to each fund option, including the fund's investment objectives and policies, management fees and other expenses that the fund charges, the risks and volatility of the fund, and whether the fund contributes to the diversification of your overall investment portfolio. The SEC's online publication, Mutual Fund Investing: Look at More Than a Fund's Past Performance, provides information about these factors. Another SEC online publication, Invest Wisely: An Introduction to Mutual Funds, provides general information about the types of mutual funds and the expenses they charge.
During the accumulation phase, you can typically transfer your money from one investment option to another without paying tax on your investment income and gains, although you may be charged by the insurance company for transfers. However, if you withdraw money from your account during the early years of the accumulation phase, you may have to pay "surrender charges," which are discussed below. In addition, you may have to pay a 10% federal tax penalty if you withdraw money before the age of 59½.