Dividing community property, or property jointly owned by a married couple, can often be a complicated process, with your financial options dictated by potential tax implications. While some things may be easy to divide, others are not. Some belongings are sentimental, while others — such as annuities — involve complicated financial calculations. Annuities not only involve moving ownership from one person to the other or joint title to single title, they often also involve moving or potentially deleting critical living benefits, guarantees and/or death benefits as well as surrender penalties on top of potential tax liabilities. That is a lot! Annuities in divorce are complex to say the least. We will attempt to unravel the complexities of annuities as they relate to divorce or at least guide you on what questions to ask.

Annuity Phase

While there are multiple types of annuities (fixed, fixed index, variable, immediate and deferred) all types of annuities are typically in either the accumulation phase or the distribution phase. The different phases will determine how value and divide the annuity in a divorce situation.

Accumulation Phase

If an annuity is in the accumulation phase, it is growing. The annuity may be growing by a simple fixed rate – aka a fixed annuity or by a variety of factors in the fixed index or variable space. The key take-away is there is only growth in this phase. Income has not yet started. This is a critical factor in divorce negotiations. In the accumulation phase the annuity can have three main parts – the actual cash value, the guaranteed benefit amount and the death benefit.

Cash Value

This is the actual cash value. This is real money and should be the value on the marital inventory. This value may have a surrender charge affiliated with it which should also be reflected on the marital inventory. If you do not see a surrender charge on the statement, it is wise to call the carrier and confirm no surrender fee exists. Also, if the contract is still under surrender charge penalties, ask the carrier if they will waive the surrender charge in the case of a divorce where the account is divided between the spouses. We have found quite often they do not waive any fees even though the division is pursuant to a divorce.

Guaranteed Value or Living Benefit Amount

In the accumulation phase, this is the living benefit amount. Many contracts offer a certain amount of guaranteed growth for future income. For example, some annuities may guarantee 7% growth, compounded annually with possibly even a high-water mark (meaning the annuity will capture the highest day of market gains in the annuity contract that year plus add the 7% guaranteed growth on top of this value). Sound too good to be true? What is the catch? This amount is not real money – it cannot be withdrawal in a lump sum. It is the value for which a future income stream is derived. In our same example, let’s say the contract grows by 7% guaranteed compounded annually, and when the client is age 65 a 5% income stream can be taken, guaranteed for life off the 7% compounded number. (In some cases, the income stream will also double for long term care needs for a certain amount of time.) In divorce, the guaranteed amount is often erased if the annuity is divided. This can cost the overall estate hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Know if there is a living benefit and if so, what happens if the annuity is divided between the spouses? The living benefit number is often quite higher than the actual account value, but this is not the number to be listed on the marital inventory. It is a phantom number used to derive a set amount of income at a future date. However, because there is an account value it is the actual cash value which is listed on the estate spreadsheet. The annuities are designed to deplete the cash value over time when the income begins if you live long enough, so this number is not listed on the inventory when the annuity is still in the accumulation phase.

Death Benefit

Sometimes annuities have stand alone death benefits or death benefits attached to the living benefits. This means a certain amount is guaranteed at the death of the annuitant. In some cases, the death benefit is the reason an annuity is sold as life insurance was not an option or was too expensive. It is important to know if an enhanced death benefit exists and if so, know this and other relevant facts. Who is the annuitant? What is the death benefit exactly? What happens in the case of divorce if the contract is divided or moved to the non-annuitant spouse? Now that the couples are divorcing, is the death benefit still relevant or should other options be considered? The death benefit should be on the latest annuity contract statement. However, it is not listed as an asset on the marital inventory as it will only be pain in the event of the annuitant’s death.

Income Phase

If an annuity is in the income phase, it is in distribution. The distribution may be a systematic withdrawal stream on a guaranteed basis, a systematic withdrawal on a non-guaranteed basis or annuitized. This set of facts is vital to know in the case of a divorce.

Systematic Withdrawal – Guaranteed Basis

This should be the most common situation with an annuity. The income from the living benefit has been triggered. In the example above, the 5% income stream at age 65 has begun off the 7% compounded annual growth the annuity provided. If this is the case, the annuity may not be divisible without significantly hurting the amount of income the annuity provides on a guaranteed basis. Contact the carrier to determine how, if at all, the annuity can be divided, and the income stream kept intact. The income stream however may be divisible. The division of this works much like a pension on the estate spreadsheet where a net present value of the future income stream is calculated, and this is the number on the marital inventory.

You can also forego a net present value calculation of the income on the marital inventory and split the income 50/50. We recommend contacting the annuity carrier to determine if division can occur at the carrier level so there is little, if any, interaction between the parties. You will also want to ask the annuity carrier what happens if the annuitant dies. The wife may not receive any payout if the annuity is based only on the husband’s life and he dies or vice versa. Some payouts are based on joint life and some are on single life which were determined at the income stream’s inception. It is vital to understand what happens in the event of one spouse’s death.

Systematic Withdrawal – Nonguaranteed Basis

If this is the case, you can likely divide this annuity. It may not be attached to a living benefit guarantee. This is the least likely to exists and rarely seen, but it is a possibility. It is important to call the carrier and determine your options if this set of facts exists with your annuity. The issue will be mainly surrender charge penalties when this annuity is divided if it is still in the penalty period. We would also ask if there are any issues with the annuitant – is it joint annuitant or single annuitant and will this be possible if you change to the spouse who wants the asset or if you divide the contract in half.

Annuitized

If this is the case, the annuity cash value no longer exists – it is only an income stream. Older contracts typically have this. Most newer contracts do not require annuitization because the contract corpus is gone – it belongs to the annuity company. The valuation of this is now just like the valuation of a pension plan. The carrier may have the income based on joint life or single life. They may divide the income in half but when one spouse dies, the income stream may cease for all. The carrier must be contacted to determine what happens at the death of the owner and/or the death of the annuitant. These facts are important to know as they relate to the income stream after one spouse dies. If you do not want to divide the income, one can calculate a Net Present Value of the future income stream as one would a pension and this number should be indicated on the marital inventory as an asset to be offset with other assets.

Owners and Annuitants

Aside from the issues we stated above in valuing and dividing annuities in the accumulation and the income phases, the named owner and named annuitant could alter the course of the annuity division. It is vital to know who the owner is and who the annuitant is (they may not be the same). These set of facts may determine what happens to the contract when this is divided to the non-owner and/or non-annuitant. Some contracts are jointly owned the with joint annuitants or jointly owned with single annuitants – and each carrier can handle dividing these differently. A simple call to the carrier and a discussion with a member of client services advanced team should straighten out these issues, we just want you to know what to ask for.

Summary

We highly encourage you to reach out to a professional who not only understands annuities, but also understands divorce laws in your area. A Certified Divorce Financial Analyst is the perfect person to have on your team if you or your spouse own an annuity and you are walking through a divorce. We at Divorce Strategies Group understand annuities and divorce finance and can help as well. Contact us for your 30-minute free consultation today.