Overall annuity sales climbed to $240.3 billion in 2011, an 8 percent jump from 2010, reports LIMRA. What makes these products so popular? And what products and/or features do consumers crave? Here’s a look at what’s hot in annuities.

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Paychecks for Life

Many retirees and pre-retirees have entered or will enter retirement without a private pension. So where do they get a pension-like check in their Golden Years? An annuity with guaranteed lifetime income benefits is one way. This feature is a popular choice by buyers of both variable annuities and fixed index annuities. As much as investors appear willing to pay extra for annuities with living benefits to cover their lifetime income needs, annuity providers appear just as driven to manage the risk associated with offering those guarantees more effectively. Lately that’s been the case, with insurers adjusting living benefits to put more risk, or more costs, or more investment restrictions on the investor.

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It’s a Wrap

Variable annuities that wrap around qualified assets, like IRAs, are gaining traction in a fitful economy. In fact, sales of VAs in a qualified setting now outpace sales of nonqualified VAs by about two to one, according to the Insured Retirement Institute. Meanwhile, an estimated 60 percent of VA contract assets now reside in qualified accounts. As more investors and advisors evidently see the merits of using an IRA-based variable annuity as an insurance wrapper around their qualified money, insurers are taking direct aim at that segment with a growing variety of IRA-tailored offerings designed specifically to capture qualified retirement plan money that currently resides in 401(k) and 403(b) retirement accounts.

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The Combo

The annuity/long-term care (LTC) insurance combination is one of the more entrenched annuity hybrids, though it remains a niche product. Typically built on a fixed immediate annuity chassis, this class of hybrid is designed to capitalize on provisions in the Pension Protection Act of 2006 that give tax-free status to distributions from combination annuities used to cover long-term care costs, and another that permits owners of life insurance and annuity contracts to move into a combo annuity via a tax-free 1035 exchange (benefits that apply only to non-qualified annuities).

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The Hybrid

The fixed index annuity (FIA) has long been viewed as a hybrid of its fixed and variable cousins. But another instrument known as a hybrid annuity is also carving out a niche for itself. Essentially it’s an insurance contract that allows the investor to allocate funds to both fixed and variable annuity sub-accounts by purchasing units of a variable annuity and units of a fixed annuity.

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CDAs: The New Kid on the Block

After much debate, the NAIC recently ruled that contingent deferred annuities (CDAs) are annuities that are best underwritten by life insurers. But questions about solvency and regulations remain. Though not in widespread use yet, the product is similar to a variable annuity, except the assets and/or funds underpinning the annuity are chosen not by the insurer, but by the policyholder (along with his financial planner). The ACLI defines a CDA as a “stand-alone living benefit that provides guaranteed lifetime income based on the value of assets held outside the insurance company.” Those assets could be, for example, mutual funds.

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