By Sheryl Smolkin
Receiving a regular paycheque makes it easy to budget. The amount that appears in your bank account every month is what you have available to spend on necessary and discretionary items.
But once you retire and have to figure out how to make your lump sum savings last for the rest of your life, budgeting isn’t as easy. How much can you afford to spend? What if your investments earn less than you expected when you set up a withdrawal plan?
One way to add financial certainty is to buy a life annuity with all or a part of your retirement savings. A life annuity is purchased from an insurance company for a lump sum amount and it guarantees that you will receive a set monthly amount for life (unless the annuity is indexed).
While payments from a basic life annuity typically end when you die, at an additional cost you can add provisions like a guarantee period (i.e. payments will be made for a minimum of 10 years even if you die) or a joint and survivor feature that will continue to pay out until the death of the last spouse.
Annuities are purchased from licensed life insurance agents representing insurance companies. Life insurance agents are compensated by commissions that are factored into the cost of the annuity.
Life annuities have got a bad rap in recent years because with lower interest rates they are more expensive to purchase. Also, many people do not like the idea that they lose control of their money and that upon the death of the last annuitant or the expiry of the guaranteed payment period, the principal will not revert to their estate.
However, the upside of an annuity purchase is that if you live beyond the age that it is assumed you will live to when the original annuity purchase is made, your return on investment could be much higher than if you invested the money yourself.
If you purchase an annuity with funds from a registered plan (i.e. SPP, RRSP, DC pension plan) you must begin receiving payments by the end of the year you turn 71. Because all of the money in your account has been tax-sheltered, the full amount you receive monthly will be taxed at your incremental rate.
In contrast, you can purchase an immediate or deferred annuity from a non-registered account. For example, at age 65 you could opt to manage a portion of your money for the next 15 years, but use a lump sum to purchase a life annuity beginning at age 80. Your monthly payments will be higher than if the annuity started at age 65. Furthermore, only a portion of the benefit representing investment earnings after the purchase will be taxed.
You can use the RetirementAdvisor.ca Standard Annuity Calculator (or other similar online calculators) to model either the size of the lump sum it will take to generate a specific monthly benefit or the amount of the monthly benefit a specific lump sum will generate.
Monthly benefits you receive from the Canada Pension Plan, Old Age Security or a defined benefit pension plan are in effect, life annuities. Depending on your expected expenses and the amount of savings you have available, you may decide you do not need additional annuity income.
In the conclusion to his 2013 book “Life Annuities: An Optimal Product for Retirement Income”, Moshe Milevsky, Associate Professor of Finance at York University’s Schulich School of Business notes the following:
“Behavioural evidence is growing that retirees (and seniors) who are receiving a life annuity income are happier and more content with their financial condition in retirement than those receiving equivalent levels of income from other (fully liquid) sources, such as dividends, interest, and systematic withdrawal plans. Indeed, with growing concerns about dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in an aging population, automating the retiree’s income stream at the highest possible level—which is partly what a pension life annuity is all about—will become exceedingly important and valuable.”
If you have rejected an annuity purchase in the past or if you have never seriously considered investing in a retirement annuity, it may be time to take another look.
You can also use your SPP balance to purchase a life annuity directly from the plan. For more information about SPP annuities, take a look at Understanding SPP annuities. Because you purchase the annuity directly from SPP, there are no commissions or referral fees and you can be sure you are getting competitive rates.
 This book can be downloaded in pdf and ebook format at no cost.