Q&A: Annuities can come with a tax surprise

Dear Liz: I made a one-time purchase of a variable deferred annuity with a $10,000 inheritance I received about 25 years ago, based on a co-worker’s advice. Over the years I have not made any additional payments or withdrawn any funds. It matures in about a year with an option of withdrawing the lump sum, which was nearly $60,000 this year, or receiving monthly payments. Would I be subject to capital gains taxes for the entire $50,000 increase if I take the lump sum? Are there any special tax exemptions or rules I should be aware of?

Answer: The increase in your annuity’s value isn’t subject to capital gains taxes. Instead, the gain will be subject to higher — perhaps much higher — income tax rates, regardless of whether you choose the lump sum or monthly payments.

Variable annuities are insurance products that allow you to invest money tax-deferred for retirement. Like other retirement accounts, you could face penalties for early withdrawal in addition to income taxes if you take money out before you’re 59½.

Taking the lump sum could push you into a higher tax bracket and possibly cause a temporary increase in your Medicare premiums if you’re 65 or older. If you opt for monthly payments instead, you’re likely giving up access to the money in an emergency. (Annuitization means you’re giving up the lump sum you could have accepted in exchange for a stream of monthly payments that typically lasts for life.)

A tax pro can help you weigh the effects of the different withdrawal options on your finances.