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Life Health > Annuities > Variable Annuities

Annuities and taxes, pt. 1: Variable immediate annuity payments

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Q: How are payments under a variable immediate annuity taxed?

Both fixed dollar and variable annuity payments received as an annuitized stream of income are subject to the same basic tax rule: a fixed portion of each annuity payment is excludable from gross income as a tax-free recovery of the purchaser’s investment, and the balance is taxable as ordinary income. In the case of a variable annuity, however, the excludable portion is not determined by calculating an “exclusion ratio” as it is for a fixed dollar annuity. Because the expected return under a variable annuity is unknown, it is considered to be equal to the investment in the contract.

Thus, the excludable portion of each payment is determined by dividing the investment in the contract (adjusted for any period-certain or refund guarantee) by the number of years over which it is anticipated the annuity will be paid. In practice, this means that the cost basis is simply recovered pro-rata over the expected payment period.

A portion of each payment is only excluded from gross income using the exclusion ratio until the investment in the contract is recovered (normally, at life expectancy). However, if payments received are from an annuity with a starting date that was before January 1st, 1987, payments continue to receive exclusion ratio treatment for life, even if the total cost basis recovered exceeds the original investment amount.

Where payments are received for only part of a year (as for the first year if monthly payments commence after January), the exclusion is a pro-rata share of the year’s exclusion.

If an annuity settlement provides a period-certain or refund guarantee, the investment in the contract must be adjusted before being prorated over the payment period.

Q: Is the purchaser of a deferred variable annuity taxed on the annual growth of a deferred annuity during the accumulation period?

An annuity owner who is a “natural person” (an individual and not an estate, trust or corporation) will pay no income tax until he or she receives distributions from the contract. If the contract is annuitized, taxation of payments will be calculated based on the rules that apply given the annuity starting date when payments begin.  

The tax deferral enjoyed by a deferred annuity owned by a natural person is not derived from any specific IRC section granting such deferral. Rather, this tax treatment is granted by implication. All distributions from an annuity are either “amounts received as an annuity” or “amounts not received as an annuity.” As the annual growth of the annuity account balance, except to the extent of dividends, is not stated in the IRC to be either, it is not a “distribution,” and therefore is not subject to tax as earned.

A variable annuity contract will not be treated as an annuity and taxed as explained in this and the following questions unless the underlying investments of the segregated asset account are “adequately diversified,” according to IRS regulations. If the owner of the contract is a person other than a natural person (for example, a corporation or certain trusts), growth in the value of the annuity might not be tax deferred.


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