Beware of Gotchas in Growth & Guaranteed Annuities

I’ve had several prospects ask about growth and guaranteed annuities being promoted by many in the brokerage and insurance industry.  If there’s one thing you can count on in the financial industry, it’s that the industry will always come up with products that capitalize on fear amongst investors or the frenzy in a particular market segment.  Today, many investors and pre-retirees are discouraged by increased market volatility and low or negative rates of return of late.  The financial and insurance companies respond with products to try and address these concerns and they certainly do sound attractive.

I’ve analyzed and read more annuity prospectuses in my career than I care to admit, and I have yet to find one that delivers on its promise without numerous “gotchas.”  As with any financial product, there is never a free lunch. From hidden and high fees, low guaranteed returns, vague and complicated guarantees and draconian penalty and surrender provisions, the majority of annuities, variable and otherwise, simply don’t make much financial sense.  Annuity and life insurance salesmen, brokers and “financial advisors” always tout the great benefits their products have, but rarely delve into the details of the contract or the downsides.

Remember, when you sign up for any insurance or annuity product that has a penalty or surrender charge, after the right of rescission period has passed (usually three days after signing), the penalty or surrender charge you sign up for is 100% payable whether you keep the product for the requisite term (via higher expenses over 7-17 years) or pay it outright and get out of the contract early.  So waiting until the penalty or surrender period ends does not save you from paying the penalty or surrender charges.  In fact, you’ll lose more by waiting since most contracts have sub-par investment choices with higher annual expenses.

If you’re considering an annuity, keep the following points in mind:

  1. Ask yourself what you intend to use the annuity payout for and when you think you’ll need it.  It is rare that you can’t find an investment that more effectively meets your needs. If you want secure or risk-free retirement income, look at the annuity distribution options and income stream.  In most cases, you would be better off putting your money in bank certificates of deposit and simply liquidate principal as needed.  This way, your heirs get the remaining principal at death rather than the insurance company.
  2. Many people are swayed by the guaranteed current rates on deferred annuities until they realize that the guaranteed rate changes annually, is usually lower than market rates and that the annuity has a 7-17 year unavoidable surrender charge or penalties.
  3. If the guarantee is really important to you, keep in mind that the guarantor is an insurance company much like AIG. How thoroughly have you researched the financial health of the underwriter?
  4. If you are intent on buying an annuity, focus on a fixed and immediate annuity.  Find the best one with the lowest internal expenses, shortest surrender term, and best guarantees.  A fee-only planner can help you choose the best one that has no commissions or hidden compensation to sway his recommendation.
  5. Focus on how relevant the annuity is to your financial goals and whether it is the best solution to the issue you are trying to address.  This helps you move the focus from the product and toward a focus on your personal financial goals, which is what it’s all about.
  6. Remember that an annuity is not an all or nothing decision. You can commit just a portion (10-50%) of your portfolio to an annuity to hedge and diversify your holdings.

I hope this update helps you understand a little more of what goes on with growth and guaranteed income annuities.   My thanks to fellow NAPFA member Bedda D’Angelo for her tips on keeping annuities in perspective.  If you have any questions or comments, please don’t hesitate to post them here.  If you or someone in your family or circle of friends is considering hiring a financial planner, please visit our website or consider a complimentary financial roadmap.

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