The Other Other Side of Annuities

BY MARK A. NORMAN

I just read the article “Annuities and the Other Side of the Retirement Savings Coin” (Jan. 09, page 36). The article discusses many of the benefits of annuities but does not seem to discuss in much detail the risks of purchasing an annuity, such as the risk of the insurance company becoming insolvent and the value of their “guarantee.” My father recently told me that he invested all of his retirement into an annuity with a “guaranteed” return and therefore was not concerned about the recent downturn in the market. He did not disclose the name of the insurance company that sold him the annuity. What concerns me is that I do not know the financial health of the insurance company that is backing up the annuity. Although some of the principal may be guaranteed as required by various state laws, I fear that a significant portion of his retirement nest egg could be at risk of loss should the insurance company become insolvent.

Mark A. Norman, CPA
Grand Rapids, Mich.

Authors’ reply: If Mr. Norman’s father purchased a fixed annuity, either immediate or deferred, the entire amount is backed by the insurance company’s general assets and is at risk, as he fears. He should investigate the ratings and claims-paying ability of the company (start with the A.M. Best Co. rating service) and any state insurance guarantee program in the state where his father lives. Insurance companies are regulated by states, and fortunately, many were not deregulated to the extent of much of the rest of the financial services industry. If, however, his father purchased a variable annuity (which, from the brief description, seems to be the case), the underlying investments of the variable annuity funds are not subject to the solvency of the insurance company. The fate of the insurance company will affect only the guarantees offered in the contract (the “living benefits”) and not the underlying funds.

Richard E. Marcus, CPA, CFP, and
Glen Janken, CFP, CLU
Los Angeles

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