Updated 17 June 2020
If you’ve saved into a pension during your working life, you need to think about how that money work can best for you in retirement. When you stop work, how will your pension provide you with the income you need?
One way is an annuity. This used to be the only option for most pensioners, but even now that more choices are available, annuities remain popular. So what are they, how do they work, and what are the pros and cons?
An annuity is actually an insurance product. You pay a lump sum to a provider, who in turn agrees to pay you a regular income for the rest of your life. This income is guaranteed and does not depend on a limited pot of money, so if you live a long time you may get back more than you paid.
The big advantage of an annuity is its reliability: you will always have an income. The main disadvantage is that this income may be smaller than you could achieve by another method.
The size of the income paid to you by your annuity will depend on a number of things. The main factors are:
Other factors include whether or not you want the annuity to include guarantees or cover your spouse as well, or whether you want the income to increase with time. Even your postcode can be a factor. Annuity rates can also vary a lot between providers, meaning some may give you tens of thousands more than others over the course of your retirement.
It's hard to estimate how much you might receive each year without first speaking to an independent financial adviser. Your adviser can assess all your circumstances and search the whole of the market to find the best deal for you – as well as seeing if you qualify for an enhanced annuity or any guaranteed annuity rates.
Other questions you might want to ask include:
An annuity that pays you more money due to health and/or lifestyle factors is called an enhanced annuity. If you’re considering an annuity, then for once it can be an advantage to have a health condition. There are a range of medical conditions that can qualify you for an enhanced annuity – meaning you’ll receive a higher annual income for the same money.
Qualifying conditions include cancer, high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and a long list of others. Lifestyle factors may also apply, such as being a long-term smoker. Even if you don’t think you’d qualify, ask your adviser to check for you – as many as 60 per cent of annuity customers could be eligible.
A standard annuity will stop paying out as soon as you die. However, you can select a joint-life annuity, which means it covers both you and one other person (usually your spouse). This kind of annuity will continue paying out a smaller income (usually 50 per cent of the original amount) to your spouse until they die.
When buying an annuity you can opt for an increasing annuity (sometimes called an ‘escalating annuity’) that pays out a higher income each year. This means that if inflation rises, your buying power won’t be reduced (or won’t be reduced so badly).
Some types of increasing annuity will raise your income by a set amount each year, e.g. 3 per cent. Others can be index-linked, so that they rise (or fall) in line with one of the measures of inflation. However, there is usually a limit to how much they can increase, so they won’t keep pace with runaway inflation.
Protecting your buying power in this way is clearly an advantage. The downside is that such annuities are more expensive, so your initial income will be lower. It may therefore be several years before an increasing annuity start to return value for money.
A fixed-term annuity will pay you a regular income for a limited period, followed by a lump sum at the end of this period. Sometimes called short-term annuities, these products last from anything between one to 20 years, though five to ten years is typical.
When the period of cover ends, your provider will pay you a maturity sum, which is the amount you originally paid for the annuity plus growth, minus the income payments made to you. You can then use the maturity sum to buy another product – such as another annuity or a drawdown scheme.
The advantage of fixed-term annuities is that they offer some of the stability of standard annuities, without committing to a product for the rest of your life. This places them somewhere between annuities and drawdown in terms of security versus flexibility.
A deferred annuity is one that you set up to pay out from a chosen date in the future. For example, a person retiring at 65 might buy a deferred annuity that is due to start paying out when they reach 80, and live off other income (such as a drawdown scheme) in the meantime.
The potential advantage of doing this is that an annuity paying out from age 80 will be much more generous than one paying out from 65. The disadvantage is that a person may die before the annuity is due to pay out – but some products may have safeguards or guarantees against this.
Unlike a standard annuity, a deferred annuity usually isn’t bought with a lump sum. Instead, you make regular payments into a policy that then starts to pay out from your chosen date. Alternatively it may pay out a lump sum that you could use to buy an annuity elsewhere.
Deferred annuities are not widely used in the UK, but ask your financial adviser about them if you’re interested. Find out more about deferred annuities.
An immediate needs annuity (also called an immediate care annuity or a care fee plan) works in a similar way to an ordinary annuity, except the income goes directly towards the cost of your care. The advantage of doing this is that it then doesn’t count as your income, so is not subject to income tax. In this way, it can deliver higher sums to pay for your care than you might be able to achieve with an ordinary annuity.
Buying an annuity is usually fairly straightforward, but there are a few pitfalls to be aware of and some things that you may need explaining. For a clear idea of what you need to do, see our Step-by-step guide to buying an annuity.
Usually, you can achieve better value from an annuity by looking beyond your existing pension provider. Finding a better product can often give you a significantly bigger income over the course of your retirement. However, always check with your adviser before switching to a new provider. Some pension pots come with a guaranteed annuity rate (GAR), which may entitle you to a very favourable annuity rate (some are worth many thousands more per year than standard annuities).
Often it isn’t easy to tell if your pension has a GAR – not every provider will draw your attention to this fact. Ask your adviser to find out whether you’re lucky enough to have one.
There are many advantages to having an annuity, including predictability, security and simplicity. However, your income may not be as much as you hope for, and you won’t have the option of varying it if you suddenly find you need more money. You may want to ask your adviser to help you compare annuities with more flexible options.
Find out about other options for drawing your pension.
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