Q: What is an annuity contract and what general rules govern the income taxation of payments received under annuity contracts?
A: An annuity contract is a financial instrument where a premium is paid to a company (or in some cases to an individual) in return for a promise to pay a certain amount for either a specific period of time or over a person’s lifetime. There are different variations of this basic form. An immediate annuity contract is one in which regular annuity payments will commence within one year. A deferred annuity contract is one in which the annuity start date (i.e., the date when regular annuity income payments begin) is deferred until the contract’s owner elects to start payments; payments can be deferred for many years, and in today’s world many annuity owners simply maintain the contract in deferred status. Nonqualified annuities are annuities that are not held within a “qualified” retirement plan or an IRA .
The rules in IRC Section 72 govern the income taxation of all amounts received under nonqualified annuity contracts. IRC Section 72 also covers the tax treatment of policy dividends and forms of premium returns. Qualified annuity contracts are governed by the tax rules of the retirement account in which they are held.
The term “annuity” includes all periodic payments resulting from the systematic liquidation of a principal sum and refers not only to payments for a life or lives, but also to installment payments that do not involve life contingency, such as payments under a “fixed period” or a “fixed amount” settlement option.
All “amounts received” under an annuity contract are either “amounts received as an annuity” or “amounts not received as an annuity.”
“Amounts received as an annuity” (annuity payments) are taxed under the annuity rules in IRC Section 72. These rules determine what portion of each payment is excludable from gross income as a return of the purchaser’s investment and what portion is taxed as interest earned on the investment. They apply to life income and other types of installment payments received under both immediate annuity contracts, and deferred annuity contracts that have been annuitized.
Payments consisting of interest only are not annuity payments and thus are not taxed as “amounts received as an annuity.” Periodic payments on a principal amount that will be returned intact on demand are interest payments. Such payments, and all amounts taxable under IRC Section 72 other than regular annuity payments, are classed as “amounts not received as an annuity.” These include amounts actually received as policy dividends, lump sum cash settlements of cash surrender values, cash withdrawals and amounts received on partial surrender, death benefits under annuity contracts, a guaranteed refund under a refund life annuity settlement, and policy loans, as well as amounts received by imputation (annuity cash value pledged as collateral for a loan).