Beware state premium taxes on annuities

Under-the-radar taxes pose big planning challenges for financial advisers

Jun 18, 2014 @ 12:01 am

By Darla Mercado

Don't be alarmed, but did you know that a handful of states slap premium taxes on carriers for annuities — and that some of that expense is being passed onto clients?

The practice has been ongoing for years, but it's largely been taking place under clients' noses. It's modeled into the quote investors receive.

It's not all that different from the tax nearly all states currently levy on life insurance premiums — and that's been going on since the 1800s, according to Leonard Wright, a certified public accountant and personal finance specialist.

There are currently eight jurisdictions that apply state premium taxes to clients' deposits into annuity contracts: California, Florida, Maine, Nevada, Puerto Rico, South Dakota, West Virginia and Wyoming. The tax applies based on the residence of the buyer.

“Life insurers aren't taxed on net income but on the gross premiums in each state,” said Jim Hall, regional vice president at the American Council of Life Insurers, an industry advocacy group. “The annuity tax works like a premium tax on the gross amount received.”

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Naturally, life insurance and annuities are priced with the expectation that the state in which the client resides will take its slice of the premium dollars. This way, the company pays the tax and the expense is subsequently deducted from the client.

Rates for non-qualified annuities, according to the ACLI, include: California: 2.35%; Florida: 1%; Maine: 2%; Nevada 3.5%; Puerto Rico: 1%; South Dakota: 1.25%; West Virginia 1% and Wyoming: 1%.

For qualified annuities, California taxes insurers at a 0.5% rate. In Florida, Puerto Rico and West Virginia, they are taxed at 1%. The remaining jurisdictions — Maine, Nevada, South Dakota and Wyoming — do not tax qualified annuities.

In Florida, insurers are exempt from the annuity premium tax if they can show that they've passed the savings onto the policyholders in that state.

The extent to which an insurer passes the expense tied to the premium tax to the client varies from one insurer to another. Some companies pass on the full tax amount to the client.

“It's a matter of competition,” Mr. Hall said. “Some companies may incorporate it more. Others, less so.”

The timing of when the insurer passes on the expense can also vary. Insurance law statutes in California, Nevada and West Virginia permit the carrier to remit the tax to the state either when the client makes the deposit or when the contract is annuitized. In the remaining states, however, the carrier pays the tax on the front end, according to Mr. Hall.

When a company decides to assess the tax expense on the customer is generally up to the carrier, however. “A company may be required to pay the tax on the front end, but they might assess it [to the customer] after annuitization,” Mr. Hall said.

But there are real planning implications for annuity purchasers in the eight jurisdictions. Mr. Wright specializes in the tax as it applies to contracts for residents in California and Nevada. What advisers need to bear in mind is whether the annuity is being held in a qualified account or in a non-qualified account.

The tax impact can be huge. In California, an annuity in a qualified account will be taxed at a rate of 0.50%. But if it's in a non-qualified account, the levy climbs to 2.35%.

“It forces you into a decision: Where should the annuity be held in the first place?” asked Mr. Wright. “Is it in a qualified plan where your distributions are considered ordinary income?”

Another factor to weigh, particularly with clients who may retire outside of states that tack on high levies: Should you hold off on the annuity purchase until you've relocated, since the annuity premium tax is based on residency? “If you want to move to Texas from Nevada, you'll pay less in taxes if you wait a year,” said Mr. Wright.

Regardless of how a client decides to proceed, it's important that advisers ensure that the annuity decision is the right call for the investor in the first place. The application of the annuity premium tax is just one consideration.

“If it is the right decision, don't let the tax tail wag the dog,” Mr. Wright added.

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