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When you annuitize, you choose to convert the assets in your deferred annuity or other retirement savings account into a stream of regular income payments that are guaranteed to last for your lifetime or the combined lifetimes of yourself and another person, called your joint annuitant.
You typically annuitize when you retire. But, if you own a nonqualified annuity, you may begin receiving income at 59 1/2 without risking an early withdrawal penalty, or you can postpone the decision to annuitize well beyond normal retirement age.
One reason people may give for choosing not to annuitize is that they're afraid if they die shortly after they begin receiving payments, they will forfeit a large portion of the annuity's value. To avoid that situation, some people choose to annuitize with what's called a period certain payout, guaranteeing that they or their beneficiaries will receive income for at least a minimum period, typically 5, 10, or 20 years.
You should be aware that the promise to pay lifetime income is contingent on the claims-paying ability of the company providing the annuity contract. That's why you'll want to check the ratings that independent analysts give your annuity company before you annuitize your contract.