Living annuities and how they affect your living

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Oh, the ironies of life… 

One of South Africa’s most contentious laws regarding annuities states that a retirement fund may not be completely withdrawn in a lump sum, but a minimum of two thirds must be invested into a compulsory living annuity in an attempt to aid preservation of retirement money. Even those who are well informed about their retirement money sometimes forget this element of their annuities.

Then along came the Coronavirus pandemic with global lockdowns.

On 23 April, Treasury announced new living annuity drawdown relief measures for COVID-19 that effectively neutralise their living annuity laws.

The new proposed measures are to be disseminated under the Disaster Management Tax Relief legislation, and will be rolled out between 1 May and 31 August 2020.

So, what do we need to know?

Living annuity drawdown changes

Under the existing annuity regulations – the owner of a living annuity is currently restricted to an annual drawdown (which is usually paid monthly) of between a maximum of the investment value of 17,5 percent and a minimum of 2,5 percent, paid out monthly. These were designed to help us avoid spending too much too soon – some agree, some don’t.

This will be effectively side-swiped by two relief measures which once again unlock your annuity – but is that for better or worse?

Changing drawdown amounts

The first COVID-19 concession, obviously thought up for people experiencing cash flow issues in the wake of the pandemic, is that annuitants can increase or decrease their drawdowns (the amount of cash they receive at any one time from their annuity) as soon as they need to. Ordinarily, annuitants can only make such changes once a year at the annuity’s anniversary date and there are a whole lot of rules governing it, so that people can’t ill-advisedly just elect to get higher and higher drawdown amounts and run the risk of their retirement money running out too quickly.

This is a useful concession for one of the worst-hit segments of the population in terms of COVID-19’s financial impact: the elderly. However, the danger is that less financially astute retirees will see this as a nice payday and draw down a large amount and spend it, not taking into account the many years of economic hardship still likely to come from the pandemic. Of course, the other option to decrease drawdown amounts is also there, but realistically, it will be an unlikely choice for many.

Drawdown limit changes

Just as with the above meaning that people can change their drawdown amounts now, the second rule allows for the amount to change as well. The existing regulations attempted to encourage preservation by limiting drawdowns to a maximum of 17,5 percent – now annuitants will be able to withdraw 20 percent. While this number may seem small, it adds up quite a lot when dealing with the large sums in annuities. Think, for instance, of the difference between R175 000 and R200 000 in a modest living annuity. That is R25 000 less for the unknown amount of years still to go which this annuity needs to last for.

Conversely, the minimum amount has also been changed, from 2,5 percent minimum to 0,5 percent, in a bid to encourage people to save more and not less.

The danger, as with almost all things retirement, is that annuitants’ money will run out too soon. And retirement during the fallout of the Coronavirus pandemic promises to be no picnic: we have no idea what the value of the rand, inflation and various asset class values will do in the many years it will take for the world and country to economically recover. Treasury runs a serious risk of annuitants joyfully giving in to instant gratification and viewing the relief measures as a windfall or unexpected extra payday, with an eye on spending rather than keeping a watchful eye on their dwindling retirement savings.

If you have a living annuity or know of someone with one, good financial education is key to understanding the temporary regulation changes and the inherent flexibilities as well as dangers that they hold. Here, as always, sound financial advice is worth its weight in annuities.

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