Email FacebookTwitterMenu burgerClose thin

How Are Non-Qualified Annuities Taxed for Beneficiaries?


Non-qualified annuities offer tax-deferred growth, providing financial benefits during the annuity holder’s lifetime. When the annuity holder passes away, their beneficiary inherits the annuity, which comes with some specific tax implications. Understanding how inherited non-qualified annuities are taxed to beneficiaries is an important part of effective estate planning and tax management. Consulting with a financial advisor can help you navigate these complexities and optimize tax-planning strategies.

Understanding the Taxation of Non-Qualified Annuities

Non-qualified annuities offer a unique blend of investment growth and tax deferral benefits. However, when the annuity holder passes away, beneficiaries face specific tax implications. Unlike qualified annuities, non-qualified annuities are funded with after-tax dollars, meaning that beneficiaries will not be taxed on the original investment amount. Instead, taxes are levied on the earnings, which are treated as ordinary income.

When a beneficiary receives a lump sum payout, the entire earnings portion becomes taxable in the year of receipt. If the beneficiary opts for periodic payments, the taxable amount is spread over the distribution period, potentially lowering the immediate tax burden. It’s also important for beneficiaries to understand that inherited non-qualified annuities do not receive a step-up in basis.

Taxation Process: Steps and Considerations

A couple determining how non-qualified annuities are taxed to beneficiaries.

The taxation process involves determining tax liability, filing returns, making payments and undergoing audits while considering compliance with laws, deductions, credits and record-keeping. Here’s an overview of five general steps and things to keep in mind:

Initial Taxation Basis

When a beneficiary inherits a non-qualified annuity, they need to determine the taxable portion. The original investment, or principal, was made with after-tax dollars and is not subject to further taxation. However, any earnings on the annuity are taxable as ordinary income. The beneficiary must distinguish between the principal and the earnings to understand their tax liability.

Lump-Sum Distribution

If the beneficiary chooses a lump-sum distribution, the entire earnings portion becomes taxable in the year it is received. This can lead to a significant tax bill, as the earnings are added to the beneficiary’s income for that year.

Periodic Payments

Opting for periodic payments can spread the tax burden out over several years. When receiving periodic payments, each payment consists of both a return of the principal and a portion of the earnings. The earnings portion of each payment is subject to ordinary income tax, while the principal portion is not taxed. This method can be beneficial for beneficiaries who prefer to avoid a large, immediate tax bill and instead want a steady income stream.

Five-Year Rule

The IRS allows beneficiaries to spread out their distributions over a five-year period if the annuity contract specifies this option. Under the five-year rule, the entire annuity must be distributed within five years of the original owner’s death. This rule provides some flexibility in managing the tax impact, as the earnings are distributed and taxed incrementally rather than all at once.

Spousal Continuation Option

If the beneficiary is the spouse of the deceased, they may have the option to continue the annuity contract in their name. This allows the surviving spouse to defer taxes on the earnings until they start receiving distributions. This continuation can provide significant tax advantages, as it allows the earnings to continue growing tax-deferred.

Bottom Line

Understanding how non-qualified annuities are taxed to beneficiaries is essential for effective retirement planning.

Understanding how non-qualified annuities are taxed to beneficiaries can be helpful when making financial and retirement planning decisions. Each distribution option comes with different tax implications, meaning beneficiaries should evaluate their financial situation and consider consulting with a financial advisor. This way they can make informed decisions that align with their financial goals as well as minimize their tax burden.

Annuity Investment Tips

  • Finding a financial advisor doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three vetted financial advisors who serve your area, and you can have a free introductory call with your advisor matches to decide which one you feel is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.
  • An annuity may help you diversify your portfolio. Consider your risk tolerance and all of the various types of investments that can help your money grow. From stocks and bonds to mutual funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs) there are many investments to consider outside of annuities.

Photo credit: © Picture Company, © Picture Company, ©