Pros and Cons of a Do-It-Yourself Annuity in Retirement

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I’m approaching retirement, and the turmoil in the markets this year has me thinking, for the first time, about buying an annuity. I like the idea of predictable income, but I don’t like the idea of handing my money, permanently, to an insurance company. What do you think about a person building his or her own annuity? Is there a good way to do this?

Yes, there are ways to create an annuity. And I think it’s wise to consider how an annuity might help you and your nest egg. But I think the do-it-yourself approach can be difficult for many investors and carries some sizable risks.

To start, I’ll focus on the product you seem to be considering: an immediate fixed annuity. In other words, you hand a lump sum to an insurer, which, in turn, guarantees you a monthly paycheck for life. Period. (We’ll save, for another day, talking about more-complicated products, such as equity-indexed annuities.)

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If you wish to build something resembling an immediate fixed annuity, you could, for instance, assemble a “TIPS ladder,” a collection of Treasury inflation-protected securities of various maturities. Or you could construct a bond portfolio with high-quality corporate and municipal bonds. Both approaches would produce a predictable stream of income.

Even something as simple as a “balanced” mutual fund, one with a mix of stocks and bonds and a long history of solid returns, could, in theory, serve as an annuity. A good example:

T. Rowe Price Balanced Fund

(RPBAX) has posted an average annual total return of 9.46% since its start in 1939.

The point: With each of these strategies, you retain control of your cash.

But let’s take a step back. Do you have the skills and time to build, say, a TIPS ladder or search for top-notch bonds? I would argue that many people don’t. And a balanced fund, however simple, highlights some of the limitations involved with the DIY route. Among them:

Longevity: Even the best investments can have rough years, which could hurt the long-term prospects of a homegrown annuity. That’s where a highly rated insurance company typically has an edge: It will keep pumping out cash, year after year, regardless of market and economic conditions.

Risk: Yes, TIPS and corporate bonds tend to be safer investments than most others—but there is still some risk. State governments mitigate some of the risk of annuities by requiring insurers to maintain specific levels of capital to make annuity payments. If you build your own annuity, you won’t have the protection of a regulator looking over your shoulder.

Discipline: You might be able to build an annuity—but will you have the discipline to keep from fiddling with it? Put another way: Will the next market meltdown prompt you to undo your handiwork?

Income From an Annuity

Estimates of what an immediate fixed annuity would pay out, given current interest rates and cost being $200,000:

Monthly income by age

65-yr.-old man

65/woman

65/couple

70/couple

75/couple

$963

918

810

911

1,071

Source: ImmediateAnnuities.com

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After this year’s market volatility, are you more interested in annuities? Join the conversation below.

Again, I think it’s smart to look at annuities; most retirees want, and need, predictable lifetime income. But doing this yourself could be a stretch. If you’re concerned about handing over your life savings to an insurer, consider buying a series of smaller annuities from different insurers over a period of years. In this way, you reduce the risk of any single insurer failing to make its payments. What’s more, if interest rates rise, you won’t be locked into an annuity that’s tied to today’s low rates.

And always remember: The single best annuity is right under your nose—Social Security. The longer you wait to claim it, the better the monthly payout, for life.

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I am a 78-year-old retiree taking required distributions from a 401(k) plan I accumulated while I was working. I am considering naming a charitable organization as the plan’s beneficiary. When I die, will the funds be paid to the charity without being taxed, or is there a provision in the tax code that would tax the payment?

The answer, happily, is simple. And this question gives me the chance to remind readers about a second way to be charitable, one with its own tax advantages.

Yes, you can name a charity as the beneficiary of a retirement plan, and no, there would be no tax on the transfer to the charity after your death.

“For anyone who is charitably inclined, funds like individual retirement accounts or 401(k)s are actually the best assets to leave to a charity,” says Ed Slott, an IRA expert in Rockville Centre, N.Y. “That’s because they are loaded with deferred taxes that will never get collected when the funds are donated.”

Still, you might decide, at some point, that you would like to see how your donations are helping others before you pass on. In that event, consider making a qualified charitable distribution, or QCD.

As we’ve noted in earlier columns, a QCD is a tax break for individuals age 70½ or older. It allows you to transfer money, tax-free, from an IRA to a charity. (And that presents a wrinkle for this reader: You first would have to roll the funds from your 401(k) into an IRA to take advantage of a QCD.)

Recent changes in tax laws offer additional reasons to consider using a QCD, Mr. Slott says. For instance, Congress recently ended the so-called stretch IRA, which allowed nonspouse beneficiaries (typically, children and grandchildren) to stretch withdrawals from inherited IRAs, along with the tax bite, over their lifetimes. Now, such individuals are required to withdraw all the money, and pay the associated taxes, within a decade of the original account holder’s death.

Given that, QCDs could help your heirs in the long run. Let’s say you begin donating funds from your IRA in the form of QCDs. When you die, your beneficiaries will inherit less of your IRA, which is taxable. But, ideally, these same beneficiaries will inherit more of assets outside your IRA that might have been used for charitable contributions, like cash, stocks, bonds or mutual funds. These, for the most part, won’t be taxable and/or will get a “step up” in cost basis. (Meaning, in effect: Your heirs could save a bundle in capital-gains taxes.)

In short, Mr. Slott says, “by doing the QCDs, you are giving the taxable assets to charity—at no tax—and leaving the other, better assets to your beneficiaries.”

Of course, decisions about bequests are highly personal. You might have good reasons for waiting to donate money to a charity until after you die. (Example: You might need your required distribution each year to live on.) And no single approach to gifting is necessarily better than another. Simply be aware that there are other options—options with their own tax advantages—when it comes to helping others.

Mr. Ruffenach is a former reporter and editor for The Wall Street Journal. His column examines financial issues for those thinking about, planning and living their retirement. Send questions and comments to askencore@wsj.com.

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Appeared in the September 8, 2020, print edition as ‘A Do-It-Yourself Annuity: The Pros and Cons.’

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