Annuities are financial vehicles that can be sold only by insurance companies. Basically, an annuity is a contract between you and an insurance company, which promises to pay you a future income in exchange for the lump-sum payment or premiums that you pay. The payments specified in the annuity contract will be paid to you during your retirement (or, in some situations, to your beneficiaries after your death).
Annuities can be used to help ensure a steady stream of income in retirement, as well as to help ensure that your spouse and/or designated beneficiary will be taken care of in the event of your death. Many types of annuities exist, and most of them include a death benefit option.
If you elect to annuitize your annuity contract, you are choosing to receive your payments on a schedule that can be based on a single or joint life expectancy (for you and your spouse, for example) or for a specified period of time. Once you begin receiving payments, most annuity contracts do not allow money to continue to be made to your heirs, other than your designated joint-life beneficiary, in the event of your death. However, if you die before annuitization begins, your designated beneficiary typically will receive a death benefit at least equal to the net premiums paid.