How to Compare Pension and Annuity Rates

A woman holding a red apple in one hand and a green apple in the other, representing comparing pension and annuity rates.
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How you choose to receive your pension or annuity is a big decision. Both a pension and an annuity are retirement income sources but they perform in different manners.

You can't change your mind, and your choice will impact your level of retirement security for the rest of your life. If your company gives you options, you need to carefully weigh out the pros and cons of taking a lump sum versus receiving an annuity distribution before you make this permanent decision.

Some companies require you to take your pension plan in the form of an annuity payout; essentially monthly payments for your life. More and more companies, however, are giving you the option of taking your pension as a lump sum distribution instead of an annuity payout. Or, in some cases, you can take part of it as an annuity and part as a lump sum. Below are the items to consider, and an example of how you do the calculations to compare options.

Pensions vs. Annuities

Pension plans are accounts that have been funded over time with contributions by a worker and an employer. Many factors contribute to the value of the retirement fund. Depending on the type of plan, the funds are invested and grow for the use of the employee on retirement. Pension plans are insured by the Pension Benefits Guaranty Corporation (PBGC). Examples of pension plans include a 401(k) or the military retirement that many Americans receive. These plans can be:

  • Defined-benefit—the employer guarantees a set amount on retirement
  • Defined-contribution—the employer and the worker contribute to specific degrees

Annuities, on the other hand, are complex insurance-type products and come in an assortment of types. The owner will purchase the annuity policy and fund it in a lump payment or with payments stretched out over the years. Funds are invested by the insurance professional and are used to make payments in retirements. The contract will define when the owner may begin to take benefits and how long the retirement benefits will continue. Since the owner opens the annuity they can set it up to suit their future financial needs.

Withdrawing Your Funds

The owner of either an annuity or a pension plan may decide to take the value of the fund as a lump sum or as regular payments. If funds were deposited into the account after they were taxed—like with a Roth IRA—they can avoid paying taxes when they are used in retirement.

Since most people expect to have a lowered tax burden in retirement than they do during their working years, many will opt to deposit pre-tax dollars into the accounts.

Lump-Sum Distribution

Many people like the idea of taking a lump sum. With the immediate access to the money, they can use the funds as they please. They may even invest the funds into other income-producing investments. If properly managed, you may be able to generate the same amount of income that the annuity would provide through its regular payments, and retain control of the principal to pass along to heirs.

However, many people don't consider the risks of taking the lump sum. Having access to a large sum of money makes it easy to spend it too quickly. If money is improperly managed, invested poorly, or the markets just don't do well over your first ten years of retirement, you may run out of money

Steady Payouts

A pension or annuity plan with a decent payout rate has some significant advantages. You will have a guaranteed income for your life, so, you won't outlive your income. The remaining funds will continue to be managed and invested and you will not have investment management decisions or responsibilities.

However, like the lump sum option, payouts also have a downside.

If you have a large pension plan, a portion of your future pension benefits guarantee is based on the financial stability of your former employer. Benefits could be significantly reduced if they do not properly manage their pension fund. But, with most pensions, a portion of your pension benefit is insured by the PBGC. This amount is adjusted each year and depends on the year you retire.

The fixed monthly amount may not keep pace with inflation. Some pension benefits have a cost of living adjustment built-in, but most do not.

Example of an Annuity Distribution

Let's assume Joe is age 62, about to retire, and he has the following options as to how he collects his pension.

  • Single life annuity of $2,250 per month
  • 50% joint and survivor annuity: $2,078 per month
  • 100% joint and survivor annuity: $1,931 per month
  • Life annuity with 10 years certain: $2,182 per month
  • Lump-sum one-time distribution: $347,767 to be rolled over to his IRA

If Joe chooses the single life annuity option he will receive $2,250 for as long as he lives. The monthly benefit stops when he dies, so if he lives only one year, no additional funds will be paid out. If he is married, his spouse will not receive a survivor benefit.

If Joe chooses the 50% joint and survivor annuity option, he will receive $2,078 per month, and upon his death, his spouse would receive $1,039 per month as long as she lives.

If Joe chooses the 100% joint and survivor option, he and his spouse will receive $1,931 per month for as long as either of them is still alive. In this scenario, Joe is taking $319 less a month so his spouse will continue to have a substantial benefit upon his death. Think of that $319 per month as buying life insurance.

Distribution and the Internal Rate of Return

To determine if a lump sum payment is better than a steady payout, Joe must calculate the internal rate of return of the annuity. He will compare that to the expected internal rate of return on the investments he would make if he took the lump-sum distribution.

To calculate the internal rate of return of the single life annuity pension choice, Joe should consider a few life expectancy options. First, use present value of $347,767, monthly payments of $2,250 every month for twenty years, and nothing left over at the end. This equates to a 4.76% internal rate of return. Then use the same numbers, with payments for twenty-five years. That equates to just over a 6% internal rate of return, and get Joe to age 87, which is a reasonable life expectancy estimate to use.

For the 100% joint and survivor annuity option, and a twenty-five-year payout, the rate of return is 4.49%. If Joe's wife is younger, and a thirty-year payout occurred, that bumps the return to 5.29%.

If Joe takes a lump-sum distribution, he will receive $347,767. He can then choose to invest these funds however he wishes. If he follows a disciplined set of withdrawal rules, he may be able to create an income stream of 5% a year, have the ability to increase this income each year to help offset the effects of inflation, and retain control of his principal; however, he would need to follow a consistent investment strategy over a long period of time to accomplish this, and - of course - there are no guarantees that it would work in all market conditions. If it does work, here is the income Joe might expect:

$347,767 x .05 (5%) = $17,388 / year initially, or $1,449 per month, with an expected increase each year to help offset the effects of inflation. (By the time Joe reaches 82, if the investments are able to support a 2% increase a year, his distributions would increase to $2,239 per month.)

Using a present value of $347,767, monthly payments of $1,449 that increase each year by 2% a year and Joe’s single life expectancy of about 20 years, and future value of $347,767, this would equate to an internal rate of return of about 6.5%. This rate of return is assuming the funds are managed appropriately, thus providing the inflation-adjusted distributions while maintaining principal.

Comparing the Risks of the Options

The question Joe now needs to ask is, “Is the additional potential return worth Joe taking on the risk of managing the assets himself?” Some people absolutely do not feel comfortable with the funds remaining in the company’s pension plan. Others absolutely do not feel comfortable rolling the funds out of the plan to an IRA and managing it themselves or hiring someone to manage it.

You must evaluate the pros and cons, and the equivalent rates of return, and make your own decision. In the past, about one-third of the time, a well-managed portfolio would have achieved an average annual internal rate of return that was less than 6%. This is because something called sequence risk can have a big impact on your returns when you are drawing money out. Don't rely on the market to deliver above-average returns in retirement.

Many annuity offers are quite attractive, especially if you factor in the potential of living long. Don't pass over the annuity offer without analysis and a strong rationale as to why the lump sum does not make sense in your situation. Compare annuity vs. IRA and decide what's right for you.

The Balance does not provide tax, investment, or financial services and advice. The information is being presented without consideration of the investment objectives, risk tolerance or financial circumstances of any specific investor and might not be suitable for all investors. Past performance is not indicative of future results. Investing involves risk including the possible loss of principal.