Martha and Mark are a married couple in their late 60s. They are concerned because Mark’s pension will dry up when he passes away, which would force Martha to drastically reduce her standard of living. Although their assets probably will be sufficient to support Martha for the rest of her life, they do not want to tap them unless absolutely necessary. Right now, the pension is substantial enough to supply most of their needs, leaving their other assets to grow and eventually pass to their beloved children.

Is there a way to insure against the risk of Mark’s early death and the loss of his pension income without breaking the bank on a high-cost permanent life insurance policy on Mark’s life?

How about a reversionary annuity?

Life insurance is often the go-to product in situations similar to Martha and Mark’s, but in many cases, insurance is out of the question. A term policy will not work because it will lapse, and a permanent policy may not be feasible  because the premiums are normally high. And life insurance may be out of the question because of the insured’s health or age.

A reversionary annuity may be just what a couple like Martha and Mark need to make up the income shortfall that will come after Mark’s death. Reversionary annuities can be useful in any situation where one person will require regular income after the death of another, for instance:

  1. Where the payout on a spouse’s annuity or pension pays out only over his lifetime.
  2. Where the spouse who is likely to live longer will be unable to live comfortably without the other spouse’s Social Security or other payments that cease at the time of death.
  3. Where a disabled child will depend on a parent for lifetime income.
  4. Where a low-cost alternative to a buy-sell agreement for business owners is needed.

What exactly is a reversionary annuity?

A reversionary annuity is essentially a life insurance policy coupled with an immediate annuity. When the insured dies, the death benefit is used to fund an immediate annuity on the beneficiary’s life. Unlike a life insurance policy, the product offers only a predetermined life income option for the beneficiary; there is no lump-sum payout at the death of the insured.

Because of its low cost when compared to permanent insurance, reversionary insurance may also make sense for individuals with medical problems or a shorter life expectancy that makes life insurance unaffordable. For older couples, a reversionary annuity may be affordable even if a life insurance policy is not, because the beneficiary’s relatively short life expectancy decreases the cost of the policy due to the likelihood that it will not pay out over an extended period.

Riders, Benefits and Options

Reversionary annuities are generally inflexible; if the insured’s or beneficiary’s needs change, they are out of luck. In their most basic form, reversionary annuities simply pay a fixed monthly sum to the beneficiary after the insured’s death. If the beneficiary dies before the insured, payments into the product cease and the insured is left without value or benefits from the policy.

However, there are a number of riders and options that can vary that standard. For instance, instead of a “fixed monthly sum,” an inflation-protection option can be purchased for an additional premium. One such option, the “3% increasing option” increases the monthly payout by 3% on every policy anniversary date. Another option, the “5% increasing option” increases the monthly payout by 5% on each anniversary of the first monthly benefit payment to the beneficiary.

There are also options for ensuring that payments will continue at the insured’s death even if the beneficiary pre-deceases the insured. A premium return option will return premium payments to the insured if the beneficiary predeceases the insured. Simultaneous death benefit and accelerated first-year benefit riders are also available.

Taxation of Distributions from a Reversionary Annuity

Although one source claims that payments received from a reversionary annuity “may receive favorable tax treatment as survivor income,” it is safer to assume that payouts will be taxed as any other annuity payment. Part of the payout will be untaxed as a return of principal; the remainder of each payment will be taxed.

The question remains: What is the principal amount? Is it the amount paid into the product during its “life insurance phase?” Or do we use the value of the annuity that will provide an income stream for the remainder of the
surviving spouse’s lifetime?

An in-depth discussion of the taxation of reversionary annuities is beyond the scope of this article, but the answer probably is the latter; the return of principal component of each payout is based on the value of the annuity at the time of the first spouse’s death.

Comparison With Other Products

Reversionary annuities generally can be purchased for about half the price of a permanent life insurance product. But that discount comes with a price: unlike a permanent life policy, the product dies with the beneficiary, leaving no value.

How do reversionary annuities compare with other longevity-oriented products? For instance, longevity insurance is a deferred annuity with a very late start date.  A longevity annuity doesn’t make payments to the annuitant until he or she reaches a particular age—typically 85.

The contract then pays a fixed amount on a monthly basis for the remaining life of the annuitant. Both products offer competitive rates because they pay out in only a limited set of circumstances—allowing carriers to offer the products at competitive rates. Both products serve one very particular purpose, ensuring lifetime income sufficiency.

Why can carriers price reversionary annuities lower than “equivalent” life insurance policies? There are a couple of reasons. Unlike a life insurance policy, which requires the carrier to make a large cash outlay at the time of the insured’s death, the payout on a reversionary annuity is made over time, in monthly installments.

Also, as mentioned earlier, a reversionary annuity will never pay out if the beneficiary predeceases the insured. And because the beneficiary cannot be changed, the company has a very good idea of how often the distribution phase of the product will be activated and how much the product can expect to pay out for a particular insured/beneficiary combination.

The core difference between the products is the event that they’re protecting against. In the case of the reversionary annuity, the product is designed to ensure that the beneficiary does not suffer income loss when the insured dies.

In contrast, longevity annuities are suited for cases where your client is concerned about outliving his or her income because of an unexpectedly long lifespan. Despite their differences, both products insure against longevity risk. Compared to permanent life insurance, reversionary annuities are significantly less expensive and don’t require the beneficiary to manage the death benefit payout to create lifetime income sufficiency.

Each product’s suitability will depend on the type of longevity risk your client faces, their ability to qualify for traditional permanent life insurance, and their capacity to fund the products.

For additional coverage of this issue and similar ones, we invite you to sign up with AdvisorOne’s Summit Business Media partner, AdvisorFX, for a free trial.

You may also be interested in signing up for a free trial with another Summit Business Media partner, Tax Facts Online.

See also The Law Professor’s blog at AdvisorFYI.