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An annuity is a life insurance contract that provides a regular, usually monthly, income during the life of the purchaser, with the option of payments continuing for the life of the surviving spouse. There is also the option of a guaranteed minimum number of payments, but taking either or both the options would reduce the annuity's regular payment.

How do annuities work?

  1. What is an annuity? [1]
  2. What affects how much income I can get from an annuity? [1]
  3. What choices do I have when I buy an annuity? [1]
  4. What does an annuity cost? [1]
  5. What do I need to know about the risks of an annuity? [1]
  6. Is an annuity a good choice for me?[1]

How do I buy an annuity?

  1. Where can I buy an annuity? [2]
  2. How do I choose an annuity that is right for me? [2]
  3. What steps do I take to buy an annuity? [2]
  4. How can I protect my annuity income from rising prices? [2]
  5. Should I buy an annuity when interest rates are low? [2]

Types of annuities

Immediate or life annuities

Canadians are generally familiar with immediate or life annuities, which provide a fixed payout for life. Payouts are a function of two things: mortality tables and interest rates. As with life insurance policies, the annuities marketed by life insurance companies pool mortality risks, and payout rates are partially determined by actuarial calculations of the probabilities of some people dying before their average life expectancy and some people exceeding their life expectancy.

Interest rates determine payout schedules according to the (relatively) riskless investment policy life insurance companies adopted. While insurance companies invest in many types of investment vehicles, their reserve requirements – the amount of money they have to set aside in safe investments such as government T-bills, for example – limits the capital they can invest.

Immediate or life annuities come in different versions:

Life annuities come in two different forms, single or joint. Single Life annuities pay a periodic income as long as the sole annuitant is alive. Joint Life annuities pay a periodic income as long as one of the two joint annuitants is alive. Annuities can be purchased with registered funds from individual RRSPs, locked-in RRSPs, Pension Plans or Deferred Profit Sharing Plans. Annuities can also be purchased with "after-tax" or "non-registered" funds.

A single premium immediate annuity (SPIA) is like life insurance in reverse. The purchaser provides a lump sum of money to an insurance company which in turn guarantees a regular periodic payment. These periodic payments are made monthly, quarterly, semi-annually or annually. The payments usually cease upon death of the owner.

The similarity to life insurance in reverse continues when we consider that male life insurance rates are higher than female life insurance rates for persons of the same age because mortality tables show that females on an average live longer than males. When the same male and female of the same age purchase individual life annuities, the male will receive a higher periodic payment than the female because the male's life expectancy is shorter. The best life insurance rates are based on good health of the applicants, while poor health raises the likelyhood of increased life annuity payments because of shortened life expectancy. If you have a health concern, make certain that you reveal it when investigating annuity payouts.

Some of the benefits of being male or female are lost when locked-in pension funds are used to purchase a life annuity because it is mandatory that unisex rates be used to calculate periodic payments.

Single or Joint Life annuities may include a guarantee period which ensures that the periodic income continues for a specified minimum length of time or number of payments whether or not the annuitant(s) is/are alive. Thereafter, payments continue as long as the Single Life annuitant, or one of the Joint Life annuitants, is alive. If the annuitant (Single) or both annuitants (Joint) die prior to the expiration of the guarantee period, the remaining guaranteed periodic payments may be paid as scheduled or as a lump sum (that is, payment is commuted).

Joint Life annuities may be sold as Reducing or Non-Reducing. A reducing annuity would see the surviving annuitant receive a reduced periodic income in the event of the designated primary annitant's death or the first death. In the case of a Joint Life Reducing Annuity with a guarantee period, the reduction in periodic income would occur only after the death of one of the joint annuitants and the expiration of the guarantee period. (The guarantee period guarantees the number and amount of the payments.)

Single or Joint Annuities are described as being Deferred if payments commence on a date which is more than one payment period after the purchase date. If an annuitant or annuitants dies prior to the first periodic income payment, the premium may be refunded at a specific rate of interest or with no interest.

Annuities purchased with non-registered funds are described as being either Prescribed or Non-Prescribed. Prescribed annuities generally qualify for a more favourable income tax treatment than do non-prescribed annuities. The income from an annuity purchased with non-registered funds is the same for both prescribed and non-prescribed status. It is the tax treatment of the income that is different.[3]

Term certain or fixed term annuities

These annuities annuities pay a periodic income for a specific predetermined length of time or number of payments. If you die before the end of the term, the payments will go to someone you name as your beneficiary, or to your estate.

Variable annuities and GMWBs

Variable annuities, widespread in the U.S. market in which Canadian annuity providers are also active, are probably unfamiliar to most Canadians. The Canadian equivalent, thanks in part to tax differences, is a segregated fund.

Segregated funds are akin to mutual funds. They offer a maturity guarantee of 75% to 100% on the initial investment on the 10th anniversary. They also offer death guarantees of 75% or 100% upon death of the annuitant. Finally, they offer a free pass through probate fees for an estate, and against creditors should a bankruptcy occur. That's because they are, in fact, life insurance policies, or rather, Individual Variable Insurance Contracts, so that the annuitant has no claim on the underlying assets (unlike a mutual fund) but only a claim on the insurance company's assets.

In the U.S., some variable annuities offer a menu of investment options, with some sort of fixed payout that could, potentially, be augmented by positive market gains (hence the term "variable"); in Canada, segregated funds usually track a single investment option.

Still, a number of Canadian lifecos have remodelled segregated funds to mimic American-style variable annuities. These are segregated funds marketed as having a guaranteed minimum withdrawal benefit (GMWB). They are still insurance products sold by an insurance agent, but, in some sense, they act as pension plans.

With a GMWB, an investor might, 15 years before needing the money, buy a policy that promises 5% annual withdrawals on the amount invested. By staying the course each year, with no withdrawals, the annuitant will receive annual bonuses that increase the underlying capital on which the 5% can be withdrawn. And, in favourable markets, the capital underlying the initial investment can be boosted, every three years, by market gains. Market losses are the lifeco's problem.

There is a price for this; the insurance company is offering a risk-transfer deal.


RRIFs can be converted to annuities, or remain in existing investments, with no impact on the tax-free compounding within the registered account. Money withdrawn is subject to taxation as income, rather than capital gains or dividends treatment.

Prescribed annuities

For non-registered accounts, income earned (with after-tax dollars) from an annuity is treated as a blend of ordinary income and return of capital. A prescribed annuity rearranges the taxable events leveling the blend of ordinary income and return of capital. This reduces the tax due in earlier years and increases it in later years if the purchaser lives that long. This is an example of age arbitrage.

Under current regulations in place in January 2015, the taxable income portion of a prescribed annuity is determined using the 1971 Individual Mortality table[4]. Under draft legislation for the 2014 Federal Budget, starting January 1, 2017[5][6] the new regulations would require that insurers use the Annuity 2000 Basic Mortality table.[7] This will effectively increase the amount of tax due for newly purchased annuities.

Back-to-back annuities

Back-to-back annuities are a part of insurance jargon. The principle is to fund a prescribed annuity and to take the payments from the annuity to buy a life insurance policy. The annuity and life insurance should be bought from different companies. Upon death, the principal behind the annuity will pass on "tax-free" to the heirs. But it's not actually tax-free, since the annuity was paid for in after-tax dollars and lifecos paid premium and perhaps capital taxes; instead, it's a mortality arbitrage, since a healthy person might get a lower premium rate on the life insurance policy versus the general pool of annuity policy holders.

For more discussion on the taxation of annuities, see Annuity Taxation.

Charitable gift annuities

Charitable gift annuities involve giving a donation (which can be "in kind"; such as a stock) to a registered charity which then purchases an annuity for the donor with a part of the proceeds.[8][9] The donor receives a tax write-off for the entire gift.

In essence, the donor forgoes taxes in order to make a roughly similar payment to a registered charity.

When to annuitize

The retiree or prospective retiree may wish to consider an annuity purchase in the following circumstances: [10]

  • He/she or his/her spouse are relatively healthy and are likely to live longer than average.
  • Maximizing income in retirement is more important than leaving an estate.
  • A guaranteed monthly income stream is wanted regardless of how long you live.

The first two-thirds of How to Completely Avoid Outliving Your Money[dead link] provides a good introduction to annuities.

Many people talk to their life insurance company. Once you know what you want, what is appropriate to your needs, you can also ask an annuity broker or your financial adviser to find the best deal for you. A broker shops around for the best deal for you from different companies.

Age at annuitization has a large effect on the income received. The cash flow one receives from an annuity is comprised of three streams. Return of principal, interest on principal, and mortality credits. Mortality credits are the result of living longer than the others in the annuity pool. When one annutizes in one's sixties, interest on principal is the main influence on the income stream. By the time one is in their late seventies, mortality credits comprise the main income stream. As Jonathan Chevreau noted in his article If you plan to live long, get a life annuity, "Clay Gillespie, with Rogers Group Financial in Vancouver, notes the swing is from about 80% interest-rate influence in one’s early 70s to about 80% mortality credits by one’s late 70s."[11]

How much to annuitize

An annuity is an insurance product, and, like all such products, is designed to provide a profit to the issuing insurance company. Accordingly, the purchaser should buy an annuity for reasons of safety, not return, and should not purchase more than is necessary to provide a basic lifestyle (if other sources of pension income are not sufficient). Nonetheless, as has been discussed by Milevsky,[12] partial annuitization can significantly reduce the risk of running out of money. A calculator allowing the "Retirement Sustainability Quotient" (i.e. risk of running out of money) to be estimated for various asset mixes and annuity combinations is available at Qwema.

Payout rates

Current payout rates for annuities can be found at The Globe and Mail and

Historical data can be found at Ifid[dead link]. The Ifid data also include the Implied Longevity Yield (ILY),[13] which is a calculated internal rate of return that can be compared to current bond yields.

Consumer protection

Assuris is the life-insurance company insurance organization. It protects annuity payments, for each member insurance company, up to $2,000 per month or 85% of the promised Monthly Income benefit, whichever is higher. [14]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 Investor Education Fund How do annuities work? Viewed August 17, 2009
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Investor Education Fund How do I buy an annuity? Viewed August 17, 2009
  3. Annuity Brokers Services Basic Annuity Types[dead link], Viewed September 28, 2010
  4. Cherry, Harold, THE 1971 INDIVIDUAL ANNUITY MORTALITY TABLE, Transactions of Society of Actuaries, 1971, Vol. 23 Pt. 1 No. 67, viewed January 10, 2015.
  5. Conference for Advanced Life Underwriting (CALU), EXEMPT TEST AND BUDGET 2014 DRAFT LEGISLATION RELEASED, viewed January 11, 2015.
  6. CALU Overview of Legislative Proposals Released on August 29, 2014 Relating to the Exempt Test and 2014 Federal Budget Proposals[dead link], September 2014. Viewed January 11, 2015.
  7. Proposed changes to prescribed annuity taxation: the truth is in the numbers… | The Insurance Specialist, viewed January 10, 2015.
  8. Canada Revenue Agency, Summary policy stating that donors can transfer capital to a charitable organization in exchange for immediate guaranteed payments.[dead link], viewed June 21, 2012.
  9. Canadian Charitable Annuity Association, viewed June21, 2012.
  10. Financial Planning - Retirement
  11. If you plan to live long, get a life annuity Jonathan Chevreau, Financial Post · Sunday, Jun. 6, 2010
  12. Moshe A. Milevsky and Alexandra C. Macqueen. Pensionize your Nest Egg. John Wiley and Sons, Canada, 2010. ISBN 978-0-470-68099-5
  13. Moshe A. Milevsky, The Implied Longevity Yield: A Note on Developing an Index for Life Annuities[dead link],York University and The IFID Centre, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 15 September 2004.
  14. Assuris, Individual Payout Annuity, viewed Feb. 23, 2013.

Further reading

External links

  • A (US-focused) discussion of the basics of annuities can be found on the Bogleheads discussion forum. In US terminology, the type of annuity discussed below is termed a fixed-payout annuity. US variable-payout annuities are not discussed.
  • Book excerpt, Retire like you've got a pension (from Pensionize Your Nest Egg: How to Use Product Allocation to Create a Guaranteed Income for Life by M. Milevsky and A. Macqueen; the excerpt provides a basic description of the role of annuities in retirement planning)