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Articles, wit and wisdom about retirement planning, tax management and living a long life.


Who Should Buy a QLAC (And Who Should Not?)

 Introduction

Who should consider buying a Qualified Longevity Annuity Contract (a “QLAC”)?  Who should not? 

A QLAC is a general account annuity that meets tests established by the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) in 2014.  The QLAC’s start date can be as late as the buyer’s 85th birthday.  The annuity payments continue for the life of the buyer (or the buyer and spouse). In this respect, the distributions are somewhat like social security benefits, except they start later. A QLAC premium (A Cap is described below) is withdrawn from a traditional IRA[1] without triggering a taxable distribution.  The IRA asset account is reduced by the premium distribution for purposes of computing the Required Minimum Distribution beginning at age 72.  Because the QLAC premium distribution was not taxed, the QLAC annuity payments are all taxable upon receipt.  (Please try our RMD and QLAC annuity benefit calculator to see how this works.)

Why Not Buy a QLAC?

At the latest, planning for retirement should begin in one’s early sixties or at least sometime during the decade after that. Some people will not be concerned about running out of savings during their retirements.  Below are examples of persons who are unlikely to be QLAC buyers:

  • A beneficiary of a defined benefit plan that provides a large, fixed benefit for life;
  • An owner of defined contribution plans (401(k)s, IRAs, etc.) with combined asset balances more than $1.5 million;
  • An investor with a portfolio of assets that generate adequate income to meet retirement living expenses;
  • An individual whose retirement planning focus is about to whom her estate will be distributed; and
  • A person with a limited life expectancy due to a disability or illness.

It is hard to imagine any of the above persons buying a QLAC unless their focus is purely on tax deferral.  

Who Should Consider Buying a QLAC?

There are many more who should consider a QLAC in their retirement planning. Examples of people who look into a QLAC include:

  • An owner of defined contribution plans (e.g., 401(k)s, IRAs) with combined asset balances less than $1.5 million and who has no defined retirement benefits;
  • Someone concerned about becoming a burden to his or her children during retirement; 
  • A taxpayer whose social security benefits will be a material part of his or her retirement income;
  • A person with no assets outside a home and defined contribution savings; and
  • Someone in good health and with a family history of longevity.

 Fear of out-living one’s assets is the common concern of people in this second group.   Social security benefits, in of themselves, fall short of their living cost in retirement. Further, most do not want to ask for financial help from their children or other relatives.   As a result, they want to find a way to make their savings last for life.

A QLAC addresses this concern by creating a lifetime cash flow starting before age 85. With a QLAC purchased say 15 years earlier, the annual benefit can equal anywhere from 25% to 35% of the premium.

To date, QLACs sales have not caught up to the need in the marketplace. Why?  The product is less than four years old. Many future and current retirees are not aware that QLACs exist.  Others have heard of QLACs but from a party with a vested interest in maintaining funds under management who have made a negative comment.  Below are criticisms and rebuttals.

Life Expectancy

Here, an argument is made that a retiree can make his funds last for her life expectancy. As previously noted, projected mortality is part of the criteria in deciding whether a person is a QLAC candidate. People with terminal diseases have short life horizons. Others, with less cloudy futures, ask, “How long can I expect to live?” The only way to answer the question is to look at an actuarial table. Still, it is essential to look at the right table.

          2016 Table for a 65-Year-Old  Sex                    Life Expectancy

          Social Security Administration      Female             21.6 years (i.e., age 86.6)

          SOA Annuity Table for 2016          Female             25.1 years (i.e., age 90.1)

For retirees with savings, the Society of Actuaries table is the right choice.  Longevity has been shown to correlate with income and savings.  The Social Security table includes low-income earners and those who have failed to save. The Society of Actuaries table focuses on a more narrow mix.

The definition of, “Life Expectancy” is also important.  The term does not mean that a group of like-aged (a “cohort”) females will all die when they reach their life expectancy (e.g.,. age 90).   Instead, it means that of an original cohort, 50% of the group will be deceased and 50% will be alive when the survivors reach age 90.  Further, the Society of Actuaries predicts that at age 100 10% of the original cohort (i.e., 20% of those alive at age 90) will still be with us.  At age 105, about 1% will still be living.

Of course, on average males die before females. The Society of Actuaries predicts a male age 65 has a life expectancy of about 23 years.  The slope of the male mortality curve follows the female curve – 10% of the males make it to age 98. 

Life expectancy increases when the actuaries compute the survival probability for at least one of a married couple (born on the same day).  At age 65, that life expectancy becomes 29 years or age 94.

So, it is incorrect to predict that savings need only last to one’s life expectancy.   There is a reasonable chance that each of us may live ten years or more past our actuarial life expectancy.  Indeed, life expectancy has been growing and will continue to increase as medical treatments improve.  No matter how long it may be, providing for the tail end of life is what a QLAC is all about.

'Bad Investment' or Good Insurance?

Some money managers have branded a QLAC (and other life annuities) as bad investments. Still, a QLAC is not an investment – it is an insurance contract.  It pays no matter how long you live.  It does not pay after you die, i.e., when you no longer need the money.

Analogies abound. Social security is an example, although it is a mandatory government-sponsored plan.  On every payday, the employee and the employer pay into the social security trust fund.  After retirement (for social security purposes), each month a social security distribution is paid to the former employee – until he or she dies.  If an individual dies before benefit eligibility, their estate receives nothing – there is no refund of social security taxes previously paid to the government.

The same logic applies to defined benefit pension plans sponsored by private employers.  The plan sponsor contributes to the pension plan fund, and after retirement, the program pays a scheduled benefit – until he dies. An early death does not trigger a plan refund to the employer or the employee.

To summarize, a QLAC converts a portion of retirement savings from a defined contribution plan into a defined benefit plan. That conversion is what creates peace of mind for QLAC buyers - they have covered their late in life living costs no matter how long they live.

Early Death Refund

Unlike social security or a defined benefit pension plan, QLAC buyers can elect a Return of Premium (“ROP”) policy option.  This election provides that when a beneficiary dies, the cumulative distributions have to equal at least the premium paid.  For example, assume a QLAC premium of $20,500 and a scheduled benefit of $5,000 per year.  If the QLAC owner dies after collecting two years of $5,000 ten, then his or her estate will receive a ROP check for $10,500. 

There is an intuitive appeal to getting your money back with a ROP election. Still, the annuity benefit amount is reduced when a ROP election is made. It pays to examine annuity benefits with and without ROP to examine the tradeoffs.  Remember, a QLAC is about not being a burden on your children – a QLAC is not about creating an estate for children to inherit.

'Equities Are Better?'

From time to time, a money manager may argue that the stock market’s long-term rate of return is 10%.  For example, they will assume an annual 10% return on savings (the return rate does not apply to a QLAC) and the same retirement distributions with or without a QLAC. The basket without a QLAC will out-perform the basket with a QLAC.  The problem with this analysis is that the money manager will not and cannot give the IRA owner a guarantee that his recommended investments will generate a consistent 10% rate of return. Equities can be volatile – up and down. Long-term averages do not pay bills when the stock market declines 10% or 20% in a year of retirement. (Please see our article about the challenges of Sequence Risk for more on this concern.)


Insurance is a product for people who cannot afford a given risk or loss.  A car owner buys collision insurance because she cannot afford to replace her car. A QLAC buyer is doing the same thing – she cannot afford the loss of income in her later life.

No QLAC Surrender – Longevity vs. Liquidity

The IRS QLAC regulations state that the policy cannot have a surrender value.  The QLAC contract is irrevocable.  Once the premium is paid and the contract is delivered, there is no going back.  While reducing the flexibility of the contract for the buyer, this provision enables the carrier actuaries to create the highest payouts.  If the risk of surrender were a factor, the annuity payments would be much lower. (Consider the effect of the ROP election discussed above.)

To be sure, a QLAC is not a liquid asset.  A QLAC should not be used to fund discretionary spending. Instead, the focus should be on funding the projected annual cost of living.

Also, note that the IRS created a maximum lifetime QLAC premium per participant.  The QLAC premium(s) cannot exceed the lesser of $135,000 or 25% of the IRA fair market value (the “Cap”).  After a QLAC premium withdrawal, 75% or more of their IRA assets remain to invest in stock or bonds. To meet living expenses, the owner can withdraw from the IRA before the QLAC annuity start date.  For most retirees, these withdrawals can equal the future QLAC annuity amount. Also, the withdrawals can continue until the QLAC annuity start date[2].

Carrier Ratings & Persistency

Insurance companies issue QLAC contracts.  After the initial deferral period of 10 to 20 years, the underwriter will be paying benefits for decades after that.  This payment stream is like a corporation issuing a bond for 30 to 40 years, except there is no defined termination date with a QLAC. 

How secure is the carrier’s promise to pay? There are over a dozen top insurance companies that offer QLACs.  Without exception, each one has a long history and has high industry ratings.  (See our carriers page to see the year founded and AM Best's ratings of leading QLAC carriers.)  Other than tax rules, there is no federal government oversight of the insurance industry. Instead, the states regulate and license the insurers.  The states collect premium taxes where the insurance companies do business.

To date, carrier bankruptcies have been rare. When a carrier did become insolvent in the past decades, the state’s insurance department took control of the company. During the rehabilitation, the regulators' primary goal is to protect the policy owners. Often, the solution is to move policies from the distressed company to another and stronger carrier.  Essentially, the state insurance regulators is a performance guarantor of the carrier’s they regulate.

Silk Out of Sow’s Ear

Unfortunately, the old saying -No Silk out of Sow’s Ear – applies to QLACs.  If there are minimal savings in someone’s IRA, there is no way to convert 25% of a small number into a big number.  There must be available savings to purchase a QLAC - which generates a useful future annuity.

If a person wants to buy an immediate annuity[3], a QLAC should not be on the shopping list.  QLACs are only available as deferred annuities. QLACs perform best when the deferral period is ten years or more. Also, QLACs shine when the annuity start date is on or after the 80th birthdate of a QLAC owner. Three-quarters of one’s savings should be able to get a person to their 80th birthday or later. The purpose of a QLAC is to insure against longevity risk.


Summary

A QLAC is not for the person with no concern about running out of assets or savings during his or her lifetime. He or she does not have a risk to insure.

A QLAC provides income certainty during the later years of retirement.  Its distributions are for life.  This deferred annuity typically starts at age 80 or after.  A QLAC premium can be funded by a traditional IRA without triggering taxation of the allowed withdrawal. The amount of withdrawal cannot exceed 25% of retirement assets.  The limit is $135,000.

Candidates for a QLAC are those individuals that may outlive their savings. Most QLAC buyers have a reasonable expectation to survive well into their late 80s or 90s.

Want to learn more? Check out our videos page to see additional QLACguru videos.  See our calculators page to develop an anonymous RMD calculation and estimated QLAC quote. Answer specific questions by going to our Knowledgebase page.  Visit our blogs page for in-depth articles on a variety of topics including how QLACs help with sequence Sequence Risk, how QLACs are similar to and different from Social Securitybest practices in buying a QLAC as well as many other topics. Free Consultation.  If you would like us to develop a free RMD analysis and illustration of how a QLAC might work for you, please click here.





[1] In addition to an IRA, other Internal Revenue Code accounts can be used to fund a QLAC.  These are known as 401(k), 403(b) and 457(b) tax-qualified savings accounts. Herein, references to an IRA are meant to include the other three tax-qualified accounts.  Further, a Keogh savings account is not eligible for a QLAC withdrawal.

[2] The projection assumption is that IRA investments do not lose money in any withdrawal year. Each year can show a zero rate of return and still provide adequate withdrawals as described above.

[3] When annuity distributions begin within 12 months of the premium payment, the annuity is labeled as “immediate.” 


How to Minimize RMD

Many people are surprised to learn that they have to take Required Minimum Distributions (“RMDs”) when they reach the age of 72.  The RMD rule applies to IRS sanctioned retirement savings plans (“Plan” or “Plans”).  These Plans have names like an IRA, a 401(k), 403(b), 457(b) and other acronyms.  Contributions to these traditional retirement savings Plans are made with “pre-tax” dollars – an individual taxpayer’s Plan contributions are reductions in that person’s gross taxable income.  Also, an employer’s Plan contributions are not taxable to the employee.  Even better, assets in each Plan can grow free of income tax.  Of course, the IRS eventually wants tax revenue. So, all distributions from these traditional retirement Plans are taxable to the Plan beneficiary/recipient. 

Some retirees can maintain their lifestyles without withdrawals from their IRA or similar Plan.  Given the wealth-creating power of compounding returns without tax, these retirees often want to allow their Plan assets to grow tax-free as long as possible - without taxed distributions.  Unfortunately, the tax rules specify an annual Required Minimum Distribution (“RMD”) for all “Traditional” Plans.  The RMD rule applies once a person reaches age 72 and each year after that.   An RMD distribution shortfall is subject to a 50% penalty as well as the regular income tax.

Careful tax planning can assure that there are annual withdrawals from a Plan at least equal to the RMD.  But can a taxpayer reduce or eliminate the RMD exposure to maximize the benefit of tax-free compounding?  The answer is yes, but it takes planning and the right facts.  Below are some approaches.

ROTH 401(K) PLAN

Plans with a “Roth” in their title have tax treatments that differ from Traditional Plans.  Contributions are treated as taxable income or not deductible, but distributions are tax exempt.  Many if not most employers (offering 401(k) plans) give the employee the option of having a Roth or a Traditional 401(k) Plan.  As a result, today there are many billions of dollars in assets held in Roth 401(k) plans.   The RMD rules are the same for both Traditional and Roth 401(k) Plans. 

Here, there is a simple solution to the RMD problem.  A Roth IRA has no RMD requirement ( the Traditional IRA is subject to RMD).  A Roth 401(k) plan can be rolled over into a Roth IRA without creating taxable income.  Absent some extraneous factor; all Roth plans should be transferred to a Roth IRA before the RMD rules apply.  Of course, the rollover will have to occur when an employee has the authority to transfer the account, usually after leaving employment with the plan sponsor.

TRADITIONAL PLAN ROLLOVER

Can a person roll over to a Roth IRA if he or she holds assets in a Traditional Plan (e.g., 401(k) or IRA)?  The short answer is “yes,” but there are two hurdles to a rollover from Traditional to Roth:

  • The rollover amount is taxed as ordinary income in the rollover year.
  • No distributions from the Roth IRA can occur for five years after the rollover.

The rollover amount can be less than the total Traditional Plan asset balance.  Any distributions needed for the five years after the rollover should be held back in the Traditional Plan. After the fifth year, the Roth IRA is free to make some or no distributions to its beneficiary.

An individual’s tax situation dictates whether or not this rollover strategy makes sense.  For example, assume a person will be in a high tax rate at the rollover date and expects a low or no tax in a future distribution year.  A rollover in this example would be inappropriate.   The ideal time to do a rollover is in a year when an individual’s taxable income is unusually low.  Such a person might be between jobs, early retirement before benefits are paid, report deductible passive losses from real estate investments, etc.   Also, it is possible to plan multiple rollovers to multiple Roth IRAs over the years.  The rule is to do the rollover in a tax year when rates are low, or there are sufficient losses. Even more important – run the numbers and do a sensitivity analysis on both assumed tax rates and investment rates of return.

Here is an important point.  If the rollover into a Roth IRA occurs when the RMD rules apply, an RMD distribution will still be required in the rollover year.

There is no age restriction on a Plan roll as far as income taxes.  Still, the Plan’s language must allow the event.   For more on how to manage lifetime income using a Roth IRA, see our blog article on the topic.  

PLAN TERMINATION

A simple way to avoid RMD is to terminate the Plan before the beneficiary reaches age 72.  Generally, a penalty is triggered by a termination or Plan distribution before age 59½.  After age 59½, the beneficiary of a Traditional Plan is free to withdraw any amount so long as it equals or is greater than the RMD for that year. Withdrawal of all Plan assets will terminate the Plan.  Please recall that Traditional Plan withdrawals are taxed as ordinary income.

Just like with a rollover to a Roth IRA, distributions should be planned to occur in the year(s) when the Plan beneficiary has low or no other taxable income. So doing, the tax cost of the distribution(s) will be minimized.    Once received, the funds can be reinvested by the Plan beneficiary in his capacity as an individual investor.  The tax-advantaged choices are many – non-dividend paying stocks, deferred annuities (variable or general account), real estate, oil & gas, etc. Tax deferral depends upon the nature of the assets selected for re-investment.

A QLAC

If a person owns a Traditional Plan, the IRS has created a new type of qualified tax annuity – the Qualified Longevity Annuity Contract (“QLAC”).  The IRS authorized this new class of annuity contract in 2014 to help taxpayers of more modest means to assure themselves that their Plans would never run out of money.  Under the IRS rules, a QLAC must have the following attributes: 

  • The annuity must be deferred and not be an immediate annuity;
  • Once payments begin, the annuity is for the remainder of the beneficiary’s life;
  • The annuity must start no later than the owner’s 85th birthday;
  • The policy must be a “general account” insurance product – not variable;
  • The owner and a spouse may be joint beneficiaries;  and
  • The maximum QLAC premium is the lesser of $130,000 or 25% of Plan assets.  (The $ 130,000-lifetime limitation was increased to $130,000 from $125,000 on January 1, 2018, and will rise from time to time after that.)  
  • There are two significant benefits of buying a QLAC: 
  • Taxable income does not arise from a Plan withdrawal if used to pay a qualified QLAC premium;
  • The Plan assets are reduced by the premium withdrawal for computing RMD.

 It is important to recognize that a QLAC is an annuity, a form of insurance policy – not an investment contract.  A QLAC guarantees a fixed income for the life of the policy owner (and spouse, if elected).  There is also an available election that provides that the sum of all payouts must be equal to the premium paid.  Assume a QLAC was purchased for $125,000 with the annuity to begin at age eighty-five.  If the QLAC owner dies at age eighty, then his estate will receive $125,000, a refund of the premium paid.  (Without the return of premium election, there would not be benefits payable to the beneficiary’s estate ).  As a result,  a conservative analysis assumes that the QLAC return is 0% but never negative. On the other hand, the RMDs are reduced because the Plan assets are reduced by the distribution to pay the QLAC premium.  As a result, the beneficiary has more pre-tax dollars at work.  

The benefit of a Plan without a QLAC withdrawal is that there are more Plan assets which can grow tax-free inside the Plan – but higher RMDs.  Of course, without a QLAC, all the Plan assets are subject to investment risk.

Increased Plan distributions have distinct tax disadvantages.  Funds moved outside the Plan are taxed 100% as ordinary income - thereby reducing available re-investment assets.  Further, the remainder assets typically generate taxable income, further reducing asset growth. 

Once again, there is no one best answer concerning the above tradeoffs.   For each person, the right answer depends on the assumed tax rates, when the QLAC annuity begins, and the expected rates of return inside the Plan - as well as the rate of return on the invested distributions.  The QLAC can be an “investment” when the return of premium election is made.  As part of a portfolio of invested assets, the QLAC could be categorized as low or no risk while the assets in the Plan might be at incrementally higher risk than without the QLAC.  Finally, for many investors, there is a very important ‘sleep at night’ factor of knowing that a well-rated insurance carrier guarantees a certain part of future retirement income. 

CHARITABLE CONTRIBUTIONS

Once the RMD age is reached, a Traditional IRA can make a qualified charitable contribution up to $100,000. (To take advantage of this option, other Traditional Plans need to transfer assets to the IRA.) That contribution is treated as an RMD distribution for purposes of the RMD test but is not treated as taxable income to the Plan beneficiary.   For all intents and purposes, the IRS is assuming that the distribution’s imputed income and charitable deduction offset and neither need be reported.

Of course, instead of having the IRA make the contribution, a beneficiary could take a $100,000 distribution and turn around and make a $100,000 charitable gift.  For high-income individuals, there are disadvantages to this alternative approach.  First, the individual’s Adjusted Gross Income (“AGI”) will be increased.  A variety of tax rates kick in at higher levels of AGI.  Also, some personal deductions are limited as AGI becomes higher.   For example, itemized deductions (i.e., contributions to charities) are reduced when AGI exceeds certain thresholds (e.g., $155,650 if married filing separately).  For most high-income taxpayers, the net effect will be more taxes to pay under this second approach than if the beneficiary had simply instructed the IRA to make the charitable contribution.

A beneficiary’s charitable intent is the starting point of this RMD minimization strategy.  Having the IRA fulfill that intent is just a better way. Note that the $100,000 is a maximum only.  For Plans with less than $2.5 million in assets, typically, the RMD amounts will be less than the $100,000.   While a Plan could limit its charitable transfer to RMD, the charitable gift by the IRA could be less or more than the RMD – just not more than $100,000 in a given year.

An interesting approach might be to use a QLAC to reduce the Plan assets and after that, dedicate the reduced RMD to charitable gifting.

ANNUITIES

Buying an annuity such as an Immediate or Deferred annuity inside a Traditional Plan may achieve planning objectives, but these purchases are not a means of reducing RMD.  (A QLAC is not a traditional annuity and should not be confused with the annuity contracts described below for this discussion.) 

An Immediate annuity (annuity payments begin within 12 months of the purchase date) distribution is often treated as a deemed RMD.  The annuity distribution is 100% taxable to the beneficiary.  The Immediate annuity is great for the person who seeks a risk-free return and lifetime income. 

A Deferred annuity (annuity payments begin after 12 months of the purchase date) has another issue.  Unlike an Immediate annuity, the Deferred annuity has a cash value designated by the annuity contract or imputed by the IRS.  As a result, RMD will be computed each year based on that cash value.  Sufficient liquid assets need to be held in the Plan but outside the Deferred Annuity to assure there are available distributions to cover the computed RMD.  Once the annuity begins its payments, the payouts are typically deemed equal to the RMD.  This approach offers little or no opportunity to defer RMD.

Traditional annuities are not vehicles to accumulate assets tax-free inside a Plan.  Any tax deferral inside the annuity becomes irrelevant when the asset is held inside a Traditional or a Roth Plan.  Avoiding RMD is a strategy to allow assets to grow tax-free typically for a future beneficiary.  Annuities are about providing secure lifetime cash flows to the Plan beneficiary.  

 SUMMARY

Avoiding or minimizing RMD is for future or current retirees who do not or will not need their savings inside a Traditional Plan. A Plan that buys an Immediate or Deferred Annuities will not help reduce the RMD and will likely reduce or eliminate residual assets at the end of the beneficiary’s life.

Good Planning tools include distributing Plan assets to buy a QLAC, moving some or all of the Plan assets into a Roth IRA, distributing Plan property at an opportune time and fulfilling charitable gifting via a traditional IRA. The QLAC has no tax toll charge on the transfer from a Plan, but it is limited in the percentage of assets that can be used to pay a QLAC premium.  Transfers from a Tradition Plan to a Roth IRA (or simply outside the Plan) are 100% taxed, but that tax can be managed by doing one or more transfers in low tax rate year(s).  Finally, making charitable gifts from an IRA reduces RMD and is tax efficient for high-income taxpayers.

There is not a perfect solution for all.  Instead, minimizing RMD requires thoughtful planning with a keen eye focused on the beneficiary’s objectives and not just tax minimization.

Want to learn more? Check out our videos page to see additional QLACguru videos.  See our calculators page to develop an anonymous RMD calculation and estimated QLAC quote. Answer specific questions by going to our Knowledgebase page.  Visit our blogs page for in-depth articles on a variety of topics including how QLACs help with sequence Sequence Risk, how QLACs are similar to and different from Social Securitybest practices in buying a QLAC as well as many other topics. Free Consultation.  If you would like us to develop a free RMD analysis and illustration of how a QLAC might work for you, please click here.



How to Never Run Out of Money In Retirement

ABSTRACT:

The “Failsafe” Strategy is a way to manage a traditional (not Roth) IRA account so that the IRA assets provide income to a retiree for life, no matter how long he or she lives.  The Failsafe Strategy assures the person cannot outlive their IRA savings.

This retirement planning approach employs a new type of life annuity called a Qualified Longevity Annuity Contract or “QLAC.”  If an annuity meets the IRS definition of a QLAC, IRA distributions taken to pay the QLAC premium are not taxable to the recipient.  The QLAC annuity start date can be deferred to age 85 of the beneficiary.

To implement the Failsafe Strategy, an IRA owner purchases a QLAC, then divides retirement into two planning phases:

  • Phase I - From the start of retirement to the date before when the QLAC annuity payments begin (e.g., from 70th birthdate up to 85th birthday).  During this period, the IRA owner withdraws funds from their IRA in approximately equal monthly installments until the IRA balance is nearly dissipated.
  • Phase II - Beginning at the QLAC annuity start date to date of death (e.g., 85th birthday until the age at passing).  During this Phase, the QLAC takes over providing retiree income. The IRA owner receives monthly QLAC annuity payments until they die.

For many IRA owners, the maximum allowable QLAC premium (the lesser of 25% of IRA assets or $135,000) can buy a QLAC lifetime annuity with a benefit greater than or equal to the Phase I IRA payments. Thus, with proper planning, benefits received during Retirement Phases I and II can, when combined, create a level, secure, lifetime stream of income, one that the benefit recipient cannot outlive.  To see how the strategy outlined above might work for you, try the QLACGuru FailsafeSM Maximize Income Calculator Page.  If you prefer a pencil and paper approach, click to see Maximize Income Infographic on how to estimate  FailsafeSM income.

ARTICLE TEXT UDATED 11/4/2020:

This article describes a strategy that assures that a retiree will never run out of money during his or her retirement, no matter how long retirement lasts. The strategy will be outlined by following a prospective retiree, Ian.  

Ian’s retirement savings are in an Individual Retirement Account (“IRA”)[1]. Ian’s IRA includes funds that his employer contributed when it converted its pension plan from a defined benefit to a defined contribution plan.  Of course, Ian will collect social security benefits, and they are the foundation of his retirement income.  Unfortunately, Ian’s annual social security payments of $30,000 fall short of meeting his estimated cost of living of $50,000 to $60,000 per annum. 

Ian has been a hard worker all his life but never could save a large sum of money. He attempted to be an investor by buying and selling homes in addition to his day job. That effort turned into a major loss in 2008. His wife is deceased, and he has two grown children – one in the Armed Forces and the other a teacher.  Ian also has one grandchild. He owns his home, which is subject to a modest mortgage. He is 69 and plans to retire next year.  Ian has deferred his social security benefits until in the coming year.  His IRA account balance is $500,000.

Four Percent Rule In Current Environment

Fortunately, Ian is on good terms with his brother-in-law, Fred, a CPA.  Fred agreed to sit down with Ian and see how to make his IRA last a lifetime.  First, Fred relayed that there is an old rule of thumb that says that it is safe to withdraw 4% per year from your IRA and not run out retirement money.  For Ian 4% equals $20,000.  Adding the $20,000 to the $30,000 of social security benefits, Ian has $50,000 of spending money - the low end of his estimated retirement needs.  Unfortunately, Fred added that the old rule of thumb was conceived in an era when interest rates were much higher than today.  The conventional wisdom is that retirees should weight their investments towards bonds and other interest income investments to avoid the volatility of equities. Today, prudent planning suggests assuming a 2% rate of return in the IRA during retirement.  With that rate return, Ian’s IRA will be reduced to zero shortly after he reaches age 100.  Ian asked what would happen if the annual IRA withdrawal was $30,000.  For example, inflation could occur, and Medicare is likely to become more expensive; besides, he wants the extra $10,000 each year. 

If the annual IRA withdrawal increases to $30,000, Fred said, the IRA balance would go to zero by age 89.  When Ian seemed relieved, Fred pointed out that current mortality projections show Ian with a 50% probability of living to age 89 or older.  That means there is a reasonable chance Ian will outlive his IRA savings if he withdraws $30,000 annually.   Fred’s advice at this point was for Ian to look at his expenses and determine where he can cut back. It would not be prudent to take more than $20,000 a year out of his IRA during Ian’s retirement unless or until the IRA earnings exceed the projections.

Fred's 'Failsafe' Idea

The following week, Fred called Ian to say that he had an idea.  In his professional reading, Fred had run across a new insurance product, a Qualified Longevity Annuity Contract or “QLAC” for short. Further, there are more than a dozen life insurance carriers offering QLAC annuities. When an annuity contract qualifies under the IRS rules as a QLAC, an IRA withdrawal is tax exempt if used to pay a QLAC premium. QLAC annuity payouts can be deferred as late as age 85 and once begun, must be paid for the life of the beneficiary.  The QLAC distributions are fully taxed to the beneficiary but only when paid. The premium amount is limited to the lesser of $135,000 or 25% of the IRA balance.  Multiplying 25% times Ian’s IRA balance of $500,000 is $125,000, the maximum contribution limit.   (The $ 125,000-lifetime limitation was increased to $135,000 on January 1, 2020, and will increase from time to time after that.) If Ian were to buy a QLAC and defer the payment start date until his age 85, the annual QLAC benefit from a leading insurance agency quoted online would be $33,333 for the rest of Ian’s life. 

Running the Numbers

Once Ian turns 85, the $33,333 annuity is greater than his projected $30,000 income needed to top off his Social Security income. Accordingly, the question is what kind of distribution can the IRA support before age 85?  In other words, with longevity risk eliminated after age 84 by the QLAC insurance contract, Ian can focus on the remaining IRA assets[2] of $375,000.  These assets do not have to support an uncertain lifetime of income, but instead, provide retirement income for a time certain of 15 years - from age 70 through 84.  If the post QLAC IRA balance (i.e., $375,000) earns no income, $25,000[3] can be paid annually until age 85.  A 2% earnings rate in the IRA would justify a $30,000 annual distribution in each of the 15 years.  Ian has met retirement income targets and is assured of an income for life in addition to his Social Security benefits.

Ian asked, Fred, what is the catch?  Why not adopt this “Failsafe” strategy?  Remember that the annuity is a lifetime payout, Fred replied.  After you die, the QLAC payments stop. Most likely, there will be nothing left over for your children.   It is possible to buy a QLAC that guarantees a return of the premium (e.g., Ian’s $125,000 premium) even if you die before scheduled distributions.  Of course, such an annuity pays a lower benefit than a QLAC without a guaranteed return of premium.   In the event of premature death, it might be tempting to label a QLAC as a poor investment.  When a person thinks about a QLAC as an insurance contract that prevents you from running out of money in your old age, it makes a lot more sense.  A QLAC is more like a social security benefit than it is like buying a 20-year bond. 

Learning About QLACs - Who Should Buy, Who Should Avoid?

Next, Ian wondered – why have I not heard of this before? Shouldn’t everyone buy a QLAC? To begin, Fred said, QLACs were created by a Treasury Regulation promulgated in 2014.  It is a new financial product with special tax benefits. People are just beginning to learn about QLACs.  Also, not everyone is a good candidate. First, those folks without an IRA or similar savings accounts are simply out of luck.  The QLAC premium amounts must come out of an IRA or a similar tax-qualified savings account1.  Secondly, individuals with serious health concerns are unlikely candidates for a QLAC.  Presumably, persons in poor health or with a limited expected life span will choose not to participate even though carriers will happily take their premium dollars.  Finally, QLACs are not necessary for individuals who have ample savings and have no concern about running out assets.  Their incomes equal or exceed their spending needs. Most often, these individuals will be planning how their assets are to be distributed upon their passing. On the other hand, QLAC buyers are concerned about their financial resources disappearing in their old age and becoming a burden on their children.  

Ian asked Fred about the IRA required minimum distribution rules and how they might affect the Failsafe strategy.  Ian had heard that once a person reaches age 72, there must be a minimum distribution from the IRA or severe penalties are imposed by the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”). The IRS rules divide the life expectancy of a person into the prior year’s IRA balance.  The product is the Required Minimum Distribution (“RMD”).     Because Ian is making the IRA distributions over 15 years instead of a lifetime, each of Ian’s withdrawals will exceed the RMD for each year through age 84.   The QLAC payments occur outside the IRA, so they do not affect the RMD test. Of course, if Ian’s IRA outperforms the 2% assumption, there will be a balance in the IRA at age 85, and that balance will be subject to the RMD test.  It is important to note, however, that there is no IRS penalty for withdrawing more than the RMD or even the entire IRA balance.  

Shop Around to Buy Best Benefit and Ratings

Fred told Ian there are multiple planning opportunities Ian should evaluate before he decides to purchase a QLAC.  This is because a QLAC purchase cannot be undone once contract elections are made and the premium is paid[4].  For example, his QLAC annuity could be decreased by reducing the premium and leaving more money in the IRA.  While most carriers have a minimum premium of $25,000 or more, in Ian’s case he could reduce the premium to $112,500 to create an annuity of $30,000.  Similarly, Ian could elect for payments to start at age 83 or 84 and keep the maximum premium of $125,000.  Since Ian voiced an earlier concern about inflation, he should obtain quotes from those carriers that offer an election to include inflation factors in their QLAC distributions.  Since Ian would depend on long term payout from an insurance company, Fred added, Ian should pay careful attention to the carriers' ratings -- even though state regulators are dedicated to assuring carrier promises are kept to policy beneficiaries.

Before concluding their meeting, Fred told Ian that he wanted to share a recent conversation.  While at his country club, Fred was discussing the merits of the QLAC product with a stockbroker friend.  Fred’s buddy claimed that a QLAC was not necessary – he could create a “synthetic” QLAC by making the right investment choices.  For a minute that seemed possible – but then I asked, what if the choices do not work out?  Will you or your firm guarantee payments for life?  Not surprisingly, my stockbroker friend had no answer.

With that, Fred said, goodnight and happy retirement.  

To see how the strategy outlined above might work for you, try the QLACGuru FailsafeSM Maximize Income Calculator Page.  For more information about QLACs, including Frequently Asked Questions, Articles, and Links to authoritative information about Longevity Annuities, or links to providers Annuity Quotes, please call (800) 460-4166.  



[1] To the extent Ian had one or more IRA, 401(k), 403(b) or 457(b) type of saving plans; he previously consolidated all of these accounts into a single traditional IRA.  Ian did not have nor has a Roth type of savings account.

[2] Original IRA balance of $500,000 – QLAC premium of $125,000 = After QLAC IRA balance of $375,000.

[3] After QLAC IRA balance of $375,000 ÷ number of payment years of 15 = available annual distributions of $25,000.

[4] There are limited options to change the start date of the QLAC payments after a purchase.


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