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When It Pays to Mix IRAs and Annuities

Last update on: Dec 27 2018

Managing RMDs. During the distribution phase of an IRA, there are two goals most owners want to solve. One goal is to avoid depleting the IRA early. The IRA needs to last for at least the owner’s lifetime, and many people also would like to leave something for a spouse or younger heirs.

The other goal is compute correctly required minimum distributions. Computing the correct minimum distribution to avoid penalties can be a burden for an IRA owner. Taking RMDs also can conflict with the goal of maximizing the IRA’s life; RMDs increase the risk of depleting the IRA early.

One way around these dual problems is to purchase an annuity with the IRA. Sometime near when RMDs must begin, purchase an immediate annuity. This type of annuity begins distributions within a year and pays the same amount every year for a guaranteed period. Most people purchase an annuity that last for life or for the joint life of the IRA owner and his or her spouse.

The annuity comes with the insurer’s guarantee that payments will continue for the designated period. If the insurer has financial difficulties it might not be able to make good on the guarantee. So, it is important to choose an insurer that seems financially secure.

The insurer takes care of the RMD compliance, and purchasing an annuity usually is considered to be fulfilling the RMD rules. The IRA owner does not have to worry about computing distributions or consulting the rules.

A downside to the annuity is less flexibility. If you have an emergency financial need, your ability to draw additional money from the annuity is limited. With a straight IRA, you can take out as much money as you need above the RMD. Many insurers have loosened distribution rules so that you can take as much as 10% of the annuity balance in a year. The provision increases costs and reduces the annual payouts. It is better to have other assets available outside the IRA to handle unexpected expenses.

Another downside to the annuity is that payments are fixed. They do not increase with inflation, interest rates, or anything else. Again, it is good to have assets other than the IRA that can be invested for growth and be available to increase annual spending as costs increase.

Charitable annuity. Many people enjoy the tax deferral of their IRAs during accumulation, but they are not happy about the taxes on distributions. In most cases the full amount of the distribution is included in gross income (unless there are nondeductible contributions in the IRA) and taxed at the owner’s ordinary income tax rate. For top bracket taxpayers, that means 35% of the IRA (or more when there are state income taxes) goes to the government.

Taxpayers who are charitably-minded also have a problem with IRAs. The tax advantages of making gifts from the IRA are not great. You can take a distribution from the IRA, include it in gross income, issue a check to the charity, and deduct the contribution. That could result in no taxes, if you itemize deductions on Schedule A and are not in the higher tax brackets for which itemized deductions are reduced.
There is a temporary provision that allows a taxpayer who is at least age 70½ to have money transferred directly from an IRA to a charity. The money is excluded from gross income and no deduction is allowed.

One strategy to cope with these problems is the charitable gift annuity. Here is how this strategy works.

The IRA owner takes a distribution from the IRA of any amount, including the entire IRA. The distribution is included in gross income.

The distribution is used to purchase a charitable gift annuity. This is an annuity contract purchased from a public charity. The charity will make regular payments to the owner for life, just as an insurer of a commercial annuity will. The owner can choose from different payment options.

The amount of the payouts is less than from a commercial annuity. The difference is a gift to the charity, and the owner receives a charitable contribution for the amount of the gift.

The amount of the gift is determined from IRS tables that use current interest rates and the owner’s age to set the deduction amount. The older the owner is, the greater the deduction. The deduction can offset up to half the taxes on the distribution from the IRA, depending on the owner’s age.

When payments are received from the annuity, a portion of them are tax free. Part of each payment is a return of the owner’s basis or investment in the annuity. The basis is considered to be received pro rata over the owner’s life expectancy. Contrast that with when an annuity is purchased directly by the IRA. In that case, all of each payment is likely to be included in gross income.

The charitable gift annuity strategy should be used only by someone who has charitable intentions. But for such people when the charitable contribution is considered along with the partial tax-free treatment of each payment, the after-tax cash is likely to be comparable to that of simply purchasing an annuity with the IRA.

The promise to make the payments is backed by the charity. If the charity founders financially, it might default on the annuity payments and you would be an unsecured creditor. We have seen a number of smaller charities suffer financially in the bear market or because they invested with con artists such as Bernard Madoff. Take care when determining the charity with which you do business. Favor a long-established charity with a diverse funding base and years of experience with gift annuities. Some charities purchase annuities from commercial insurers to back up their obligations. But you would not have ownership rights in that annuity or be entitled to take title to it if the charity defaults or runs into financial trouble. One popular option is to purchase the annuity from a donor-advised foundation or community foundation. These charities support a number of causes and sometimes give donors input into how their gifts are used.

There is no need to shop around for the best payout. Almost all charities agree to use the same payout formula.

Annuities are attracting more people because of their security and steady, guaranteed income. Some IRA owners will find that annuities can make retirement easier and be a powerful complement to their IRAs.



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