How Are Annuities Taxed At Death? (Annuity Death Benefits & Taxation)

If you’re inheriting annuity death benefits, understanding the tax implications is essential.

In this article, you’ll learn how annuity death benefits are taxed, whether you’re a spouse or non-spouse beneficiary, and no matter the type of annuity involved.


  • Annuity death benefits are payments to beneficiaries after the annuitant’s death and are subject to income tax; the tax implications depend on whether the annuity is qualified or non-qualified and the beneficiary’s status.
  • Spouses inheriting annuities may continue the tax-deferred status of the annuity, deferring immediate taxes, whereas non-spouse beneficiaries face immediate tax implications on the earnings portion of the annuity.
  • Estate taxes affect annuities as they are included in the taxable estate, with federal estate tax rates ranging from 18% to 40% and an individual exemption limit of $12.92 million; differing tax treatments exist between qualified and non-qualified annuities.

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Decoding Annuity Death Benefits

Annuity death benefits, in essence, are payments dispatched to beneficiaries when the annuitant dies. The value of the contract, less any fees and withdrawals, forms the bedrock of these benefits. The tapestry of annuity contracts dictates the distribution of funds upon the annuitant’s death.

While life-only annuities cease payments upon the annuitant’s death, certain annuities, such as survivor annuity, enable the remaining funds to be inherited by beneficiaries or continue payments for a specific period.

The annuity owner holds the power to designate multiple beneficiaries, paving the way for a more flexible allocation of benefits. However, keep in mind that annuity death benefits are not exempt from income taxes.

The tax implications are contingent on the funding method of the annuity and color the type of annuity and the status of the annuity beneficiary.

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Tax Treatment of Annuity Death Benefits

Inherited annuities are typically taxed as ordinary income and become liable to income tax upon withdrawals.

The tax treatment, however, hinges on whether the annuity is qualified or non-qualified, making it essential to understand if annuity death benefits taxable status applies to your situation. With this in mind, it’s crucial to know how annuity death benefits taxed scenarios may affect your financial planning.

The beneficiary’s role significantly influences the tax treatment of inherited annuities. While spouses can assume the annuity contract, thereby deferring immediate tax consequences, non-spouse beneficiaries face immediate tax implications.

In their case, taxes are owed on the earnings of the inherited annuity death benefits by specific tax rules.

Now, let’s delve deeper into these tax implications based on the status of the beneficiary.

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Spousal Continuation and Tax Deferral

In the theater of annuity inheritance, spousal continuation serves as a vital act. This provision allows the surviving spouse to step into the shoes of the new annuitant, thereby continuing the receipt of payments.

The tax-deferred status of the annuity remains intact, enabling the spouse to defer immediate tax obligations until they commence receiving payments from the annuity.

However, it’s not without its challenges. If a surviving spouse chooses to receive a lump sum payment, they might face a torrent of tax implications. A lump sum can substantially surge their taxable income for the year of receipt, potentially propelling them into a higher income tax bracket.

Non-Spouse Beneficiaries: Immediate Tax Implications

Navigating the terrain of a non-spouse inherited annuity is a different ball game. Non-spouse beneficiaries find themselves grappling with immediate tax implications on the death benefits received from inherited annuities. Taxes are owed on the earnings portion of the annuity.

Choosing to receive an immediate lump sum from an inherited annuity could lead to a tsunami of taxes. Beneficiaries must pay taxes on the full difference between the original purchase price of the annuity and the value of the death benefit at the time of the owner’s passing.

This results in significant immediate tax obligations for the beneficiary. The tax responsibility typically hinges on the annuity’s value, the individual’s tax bracket, and any relevant tax exemptions or deductions.

Navigating Tax Implications in Different Account Types

The tax treatment of annuity death benefits varies with the type of account.

The account types, namely, IRAs, Roths, and non-qualified annuities, each carry distinct tax implications for annuity death benefits, significantly affecting the beneficiaries’ tax liabilities.

Inheriting an annuity from an IRA may result in tax implications. The tax treatment depends on the beneficiary’s chosen payout option.

In contrast, the funds designated for annuity death benefits in a Roth account are subject to taxation as ordinary income.

Finally, for non-qualified annuities, the basis rule applies to withdrawals. Now, let’s examine the tax implications for each of these account types.

IRAs and Ordinary Income Taxation

Diving into the world of IRAs, we find that annuity death benefits from these accounts are taxed as ordinary income upon withdrawal. Death benefits received from a qualified annuity are subject to ordinary income taxes.

This means that the beneficiaries may need to pay taxes on the amount they receive. This taxation extends to traditional IRA death benefits, which are generally subject to taxation upon withdrawal.

The tax rate for ordinary income varies according to the tax bracket. This means that beneficiaries of IRA annuities are subject to ordinary income taxation.

As a result, withdrawals and lump-sum distributions from inherited IRAs are taxed as ordinary income, significantly impacting the beneficiaries’ tax burden.

Roth Accounts: Tax-Free Inheritance

Hopping over to Roth accounts, we discover a different story. Roth account annuity death benefits are tax-free for beneficiaries, providing a significant advantage in estate planning.

Contributions from an inherited Roth are tax-free, and the majority of earnings from an inherited Roth IRA account can also be withdrawn tax-free.

However, things are not as straightforward as they appear. Withdrawals of earnings may be subject to income tax if the Roth account is less than 5 years old at the time of the withdrawal. Therefore, while Roth accounts offer tax advantages, they also come with specific caveats.

Non-Qualified Annuities and the Basis Rule

Now, let’s take a look at non-qualified annuities. As the name suggests, these are funded with funds that have already been taxed. When it comes to the tax treatment of annuity death benefits for non-qualified annuities, the earnings portion of the annuity is subject to taxation upon withdrawal.

Meanwhile, the premiums contributed to the annuity by the original contract owner usually escape taxation.

The basis for non-qualified annuities is determined by the exclusion ratio, which is calculated by the IRS. Thus, non-qualified annuities bring a different set of tax implications, reducing the tax burden for beneficiaries by not taxing the basis.

Life Insurance: The Estate Planning Advantage

Shifting our gaze to life insurance, we find an important ally in estate planning. An insurance company providing life insurance death benefits typically steer clear of the beneficiary’s gross income, escaping both income and estate taxes.

Consequently, life insurance can aid in covering estate taxes by supplying funds to settle the taxes, thereby enabling beneficiaries to obtain the complete value of the estate.

Furthermore, the ownership of life insurance policies can be transferred to an irrevocable life insurance trust, potentially restricting or evading taxation on the estate.

Therefore, life insurance emerges as a valuable tool in estate planning, providing tax-free death benefits to beneficiaries, and helping to cover estate taxes.

The 1035 Exchange: A Tax-Deferred Solution

In the world of annuities, the 1035 exchange is a key player. This provision allows annuity owners to:

  • Swap one annuity for another
  • Offer flexibility to reorganize investments without incurring immediate tax consequences
  • Enable the deferral of taxes that would otherwise be owed on gains

This tax-free transfer of an existing annuity enables the deferral of taxes that would otherwise be owed on gains.

The 1035 exchange can be used strategically in estate planning to transfer an insurance policy’s cash value to a new policy like an annuity contract or life insurance policy, avoiding taxes on the gains.

However, it’s worth noting that there are specific limitations on the types of annuities that can be exchanged.

Annuity Payouts and Beneficiary Choices

Beneficiaries of annuities have options when it comes to receiving payouts. They can opt for a lump sum distribution, periodic payments, or by continuing the annuity, all based on the terms of the contract.

While beneficiaries cannot completely evade tax obligations on inherited annuities, they can choose periodic payment options like the non qualified stretch, which allows them to defer taxes and distribute their tax burden over time based on their life expectancy.

However, for beneficiaries of a fixed-period annuity, they cannot change the payment method as it is typically predetermined by the original annuity contract’s terms. Let’s further explore the tax consequences of these choices.

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Lump Sum vs. Periodic Payments: Tax Consequences

The choice between receiving an inherited annuity payout as a lump sum or periodic payments can lead to different tax outcomes for beneficiaries. A lump sum may require immediate taxation, while periodic payments can distribute the tax liability over a longer period.

The tax rate for lump sum annuity death benefit payouts will be determined based on the beneficiary’s ordinary income tax rate. The beneficiary’s tax bracket is a significant factor, as a lump sum may incur higher taxation if it elevates the beneficiary into a higher tax bracket for that year.

Receiving Annuity Payments Over Time: Stretching Tax Liability

Receiving annuity payments over time offers beneficiaries an opportunity to spread out and potentially reduce their tax liability. This can be achieved through the stretch provision, which enables beneficiaries to receive monthly, quarterly, or annual payments according to their life expectancy.

By extending the period over which the benefits are paid, the tax liability is also extended, resulting in a reduced burden. However, the duration for stretching annuity payments can vary based on the carrier and type of annuity.

Estate Tax Considerations for Annuity Owners

Estate tax considerations are a critical component of the annuity equation. Annuities, whether fixed or variable, are considered part of the assets subject to estate tax. The prevailing federal estate tax rates for annuity holders vary from 18% to 40%, with an exemption standing at $12.92 million per individual.

There are disparities in estate tax implications between qualified and non-qualified annuities. While distributions from a qualified annuity are taxed as regular income, distributions from a non-qualified annuity are not liable to income tax.


Annuity death benefits come with their fair share of tax implications. These implications vary with the type of annuity, the type of account, the status of the beneficiary, and even the choice of payout method.

That’s why it’s a good idea to speak to an annuity specialist before buying an annuity.

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