Written By : Kim Borwick
Financially Reviewed By : Rubina K. Hossain, CFP®
This page features 3 Cited Research Articles
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Joint and survivor annuities are annuity contracts that guarantee payments for the life of the contract owner and the life of another person. Payments are slightly lower with joint and survivor annuities, but they last longer. In some cases, the payments to the survivor are reduced upon the death of the owner.

When we talk about annuities as flexible retirement savings tools, we may be referring to customizable payout schedules, an array of riders to ensure optimal benefits and performance, premium payment options, and a range of other versatile features.

Joint and survivor annuities offer flexibility in terms of payout.

What Is a Joint and Survivor Annuity?

A joint and survivor annuity is an annuity that pays out for the remainder of two people’s lives.

Depending on the contract, the annuity may pay 100 percent of the payments upon the death of the first annuitant or a lower percentage — typically 50 or 75 percent.

A 50 percent joint and survivor annuity will pay the surviving annuitant half the payment amount that payees were receiving when both annuitants were alive. And a 75 percent joint and survivor annuity will pay three-quarters of that amount to the surviving annuitant.

The higher the percentage the surviving annuitant is guaranteed, the lower the initial payments will be. Payment amounts are guaranteed regardless of which person dies first.

Joint and survivor annuity infographic
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Joint and Survivor Annuity vs. Jointly Owned Annuity

A joint and survivor annuity is not the same thing as a jointly owned annuity, which is an annuity contract that includes two owners. When two people own an annuity with a death benefit, the death benefit will be triggered upon the death of one of the owners. This can be problematic if the owners intended the payments to the surviving annuitant to continue.

For this reason, it’s important to make the distinction between a joint and survivor annuity and a jointly owned annuity.

Benefits

The primary benefit of owning a joint and survivor annuity is the guarantee that payments will last for the rest of the annuity owner’s life and the life of another person.

Because the second person is an annuitant, as opposed to a beneficiary, the timeframe for the payment will most likely be longer, and therefore the tax liabilities will be spread over a longer period of time.

Joint and survivor annuities can give married retirees peace of mind, knowing that their spouse will have reliable income when they are gone. For many, this assurance outweighs any drawbacks of this payout structure.

Tax Treatment of Joint and Survivor Annuities

After the death of the first annuitant, the surviving annuitant will remain on the initial payment schedule.

This tax treatment is advantageous in that there is no obligation to pay taxes on money that the second person would have received as the beneficiary of a single-life annuity. In addition, the surviving annuitant won’t have to worry about administrative actions and fees that typically accompany beneficiary payouts.

Disadvantages

In addition to the lower payments, joint and survivor annuities restrict the surviving spouse’s ability to access a large sum of cash because, in contrast to the variety of payout options available to beneficiaries of single-life annuities, the only option with a joint and survivor annuity is to continue with the existing payment schedule.

Funeral and burial costs can be high, and without the ability to take a lump sum, the surviving spouse will need an alternative way to pay them.

When you crunch the numbers, you may find that a joint and survivor annuity just doesn’t make mathematical sense. An article in CBS News consulted a group of actuaries to learn about their strategies regarding joint and survivor annuities. According to these mathematicians and longevity experts, depending on your life expectancy and the life expectancy of your partner, you may stand to lose more money in the reduced payments than your partner stands to gain after your death.

In addition, if your partner has other sources of retirement income, you may conclude that the extended payments from a joint and survivor annuity aren’t necessary.

As with all financial decisions, if you’re not sure which payout option best suits you and your personal circumstances, consult a professional. Financial advisors help people make these determinations all the time. Your financial security is worth the investment.

Last Modified: June 15, 2020

3 Cited Research Articles

  1. Consumer Reports. (2014, March). Your best pension payout options. Retrieved from https://www.consumerreports.org/cro/2014/03/best-pension-payout-option/index.htm
  2. Internal Revenue Service. (2020, January 19). Retirement Topics - Qualified Joint and Survivor Annuity. Retrieved from https://www.irs.gov/retirement-plans/plan-participant-employee/retirement-topics-qualified-joint-and-survivor-annuity
  3. Vernon, S. (2016, June 1). Figuring your spouse into a key annuity equation. Retrieved from https://www.cbsnews.com/news/figuring-your-spouse-into-a-key-annuity-equation/