Written By : Elaine Silvestrini
Edited By : Kim Borwick
Financially Reviewed By : Marguerita M. Cheng
This page features 9 Cited Research Articles

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A single premium immediate annuity, or SPIA, is a contract in which you pay an insurance company a lump sum of money up front, known as a premium, in exchange for guaranteed, periodic payments for life or over a set period of time. A SPIA can begin paying out almost immediately after you purchase it or within the year.

What Is a Single Premium Immediate Annuity (SPIA)?

A SPIA is a contract between you and an insurance company designed for income purposes only. Unlike a deferred annuity, an immediate annuity skips the accumulation phase and begins paying out income either immediately or within a year after you have purchased it with a single, lump-sum payment. SPIAs are also called immediate payment annuities, income annuities and immediate annuities.

This annuity is the oldest type, dating back to the ancient Roman Empire. The word annuity actually comes from the Latin, annua, which means annual payments. Roman soldiers received lifetime annuity payments to compensate for their service in the military.

Some consider it to be the simplest and most consumer friendly annuity. But it represents only a small portion — about 10 percent — of annuities sold each year. MarketWatch writer Stan Haithcock asserts the reason for this is that brokers push more complicated annuities that pay higher commissions but that are not as good for consumers.

Pro Tip
In 2017, total annuity sales were $203.5 billion, down 8 percent from 2016.

Individuals approaching retirement age may choose this type of annuity because they will be able to make large contributions without the limitations of 401(k) plans, IRAs and other popular retirement plans. SPIAs allow seniors to supplement Social Security income and pension plans, which might not provide enough to cover retirement living expenses. In fact, employees retiring can roll their 401(k) plans into a SPIA to create meaningful income over retirement.

How Immediate Annuities Work

Immediate annuities can be customized. Owners can receive payments monthly, quarterly, semiannually or annually. At the time of purchase, you and an advisor will customize your income stream. Payments can be made over one life or two lives and can include beneficiary protection for your heirs. Or payments can be structured over a specific period of time, such as 10 years. Each payment you receive consists of your premium plus a portion of interest earnings.

Pro Tip
How an immediate annuity is taxed depends on how the account was funded.
The interest rate on an immediate annuity can be:
  • Fixed
  • Adjusted annually for inflation
  • Varied with earnings, based on the performance of its subaccounts

In the case of a fixed rate, each payment to the annuity owner will be the same. If the annuity is variable, the amount of each check will be different because the subaccounts will fluctuate. Both of these options help protect payments from inflation, but fixed annuities offer more reliability than variable annuities.

SPIA interest rates are often more favorable than certificate of deposit (CD) and U.S. Department of the Treasury rates.

Purchasing a SPIA

A person or company can purchase a SPIA from an insurance company using a lump sum. This lump sum, or premium, must be paid up front.

The type of premium you use to fund the annuity will impact how your payments are taxed. Annuities are considered a form of income, so they are subject to income taxes.

If you fund your annuity with after-tax dollars, you own a non-qualified annuity. This means when you receive disbursements, a portion of every payment is considered a return of principal, which is not taxed.

The remaining portion of the payment consists of interest earnings and is taxable.

Examples of non-qualified immediate annuity funding sources include:
  • Deferred compensation
  • After-tax savings
  • Money market accounts
  • Mutual fund proceeds
  • Inheritance
  • Life insurance settlement
  • Certificate of deposit (CD)
  • Deferred annuity that was previously funded with the sources above

Conversely, if you purchase your annuity with pre-tax money, your annuity is qualified, and the entire amount of each payment will be subject to ordinary income tax rates.

Examples of qualified immediate annuity funding sources include:
  • Corporate-sponsored defined contribution plans
  • IRAs
  • 401(k) plans
  • Simplified Employee Pension (SEP) plans
  • Section 403(b) tax-sheltered annuities
  • Section 1035 annuity exchanges
  • Annuities previously funded with the sources above

Pros and Cons of Immediate Annuities

There are advantages and disadvantages to single premium immediate annuities.

Pros of SPIAs
Guaranteed Income
When you purchase an annuity, you transfer risk to an insurance company. Fixed immediate annuities are invested in stocks and bonds through the insurance company’s general fund, and the interest rate cannot go below a certain minimum. Variable annuities offer riders that guarantee that your annuity value will not drop below a certain threshold even if the stock market declines and your subaccounts lose money.
Mortality Credits
Risk pooling, or the spreading of risk across many accounts, allows premiums from annuity owners who die prematurely to be used to pay benefits for those who live beyond their life expectancy. These "mortality credits" can increase your returns above those of other options and, by choosing a lifetime benefit option, you can hedge against ever outliving your available assets. In fact, depending upon how long you live, your annuity can actually pay you more money than you originally invested plus what your account has earned in interest or appreciation.
No Fees
Immediate annuities don’t have any account management or account maintenance charges.
Ease of Use
Purchasers appreciate the systematic and reliable payment stream afforded by single premium immediate annuities. Once established, an immediate annuity requires no maintenance or work.
Plan for Retirement
Many people use single premium immediate annuities to fund their retirement. A financial advisor will be able to help you calculate the amount required to fund the income you desire. Once you know how much you'll need, you can enter your data into our immediate annuity calculator to get an estimated monthly income figure. Many seniors prefer this reliability to the volatility of the stock market.
For an added cost, you can purchase a cost of living adjustment (COLA) rider for your SPIA, which will increase your annuity payments over time depending on how the rate of inflation has increased. However, it’s important to evaluate this option carefully with a financial advisor because this feature typically produces substantially lower beginning payments.
One-Time Withdrawal
Some insurance companies offer one-time cash advance options for annuitants who have an immediate need for cash. Otherwise, annuities cannot be changed and only pay out the set amount on the disbursement schedule.
Option to Make SPIAs Beneficiary Friendly
There is some misconception that SPIAs will not pay benefits to your heirs when you pass. While it is possible to elect a payment that is optimized for the highest income and contains no death benefits, referred to as life only, the majority of SPIAs sold contain death benefits. One popular option to explore with a financial advisor is “Life with Cash Refund," where the insurance company pays the heirs any remainder of the initial deposit that was not paid to the annuitant upon death.
Cons of SPIAs
Loss of Control
The most significant drawback is that immediate annuities are irrevocable. Once your lump-sum payment has been exchanged for periodic distributions, you no longer have control or access to your money. In essence, you are trading your lump sum for a guaranteed income stream. That means funds may not be available for emergencies or any other use.
Loss of Purchasing Power
Most insurance companies offer optional inflation benefits. If your single premium immediate annuity does not contain an inflation adjustment feature, it could mean that your payment may not be keeping pace with inflationary trends. Be sure to discuss this option with your financial advisor.
Single Premium Immediate Variable Annuity Risk
Most of the SPIAs purchased today are fixed SPIAs. If your single premium immediate annuity is variable, which means it contains market risk, then your payment stream could decline based on changes to the subaccounts that are invested in risk-based assets.

Who Shouldn’t Get a SPIA?

Annuities are not for everyone. A decision to purchase a SPIA should be carefully evaluated with the whole of your financial well-being. Because you lose control of your money, you need to be sure you have ample liquid assets in the event of an emergency. But there’s good news. Financial advisors today are required by their State Insurance Departments to undergo annuity training to help assure consumers get the information they need. As an additional layer of consumer protection, insurance companies offering annuities carefully scrutinize annuity purchases to be sure they are suitable for the purchaser.

Looking to Avoid Stock Market Volatility?
Get guaranteed income for retirement by purchasing a single premium immediate annuity today.

Minimizing Risk

Annuities are popular financial options for retirees because they offer a relatively low level of risk. Still, there is some risk involved in purchasing a SPIA.

To minimize this risk, you should consider:
Diversifying Investments
Even if you decide an immediate annuity is a good financial choice, most experts advise you to not put all of your available financial resources into a single contract, but rather maintain adequate amounts in stocks, bonds and ready cash for any emergencies or opportunities that may arise.
Research the Insurance Company
Research with buyers of SPIAs reveals that the carrier’s financial strength was cited as the single most important factor in purchasing a SPIA. Before purchasing your single premium immediate annuity, make sure the insurance company that issues your annuity is highly rated. Financial institution rating agencies like Moody’s, Fitch, A.M. Best, and Standard & Poor’s are all reputable places to research insurance companies.
Check Guaranty Associations
Before purchasing an annuity, investigate your state guaranty association. If the insurance company you purchase your annuity from fails, this association will reimburse you. Make sure you know the coverage limit, and how this limit may change should you relocate to another state.
Last Modified: July 20, 2020

9 Cited Research Articles

  1. American Council of Life Insurers. (2003, April) Profiles of Immediate Annuity Owners.
  2. Insurancenewsnet.com. (2018, February 20). Total Annuity Sales continued to Decline In 2017, LIMRA Reports. Retrieved from https://insurancenewsnet.com/oarticle/total-annuity-sales-continued-decline-2017-limra-reports
  3. Ferri, R.. (2012, September 4). Immediate Annuities Aren’t for Everyone. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/rickferri/2012/09/04/immediate-annuities-arent-for-everyone/#4921db1128ba
  4. Haithcock, S. (2013, June 4). Do as the Romans did – with annuities. Retrieved from https://www.marketwatch.com/story/do-as-the-romans-did-with-annuities-2013-06-04
  5. Haithcock, S. (2015, June 16). Why immediate annuities still matter. Retrieved from https://www.marketwatch.com/story/why-immediate-annuities-still-matter-2015-06-16
  6. Powell, R. (2015, May 27). If you understand the cons, annuities can have a lot of pros. Retrieved from https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/columnist/powell/2015/05/27/annuity-annuities-robert-powell/28011689/
  7. Farrell, C. (2016, January 29). Annuities and an Alternative to Shaky Markets? Not So Fast. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/30/your-money/annuities-as-an-alternative-to-shaky-markets-not-so-fast.html
  8. Piper, M. (2016, August 16). Single premium immediate annuity: Why they're useful and when to buy them. Retrieved from https://obliviousinvestor.com/single-premium-immediate-annuity/
  9. Vernon, S. (2012, February 9). What happens if your insurance company fails? Retrieved from https://www.cbsnews.com/news/what-happens-if-your-insurance-company-fails/