Variable annuities are often touted as an ideal retirement investing vehicle, especially by financial advisors who sell them. Variable annuities can be a useful vehicle for retirement accumulation. However variable annuities (and other types of annuities) are quite often misunderstood by those who are the targets of these sales pitches. Is a variable annuity right for you? Here are 7 questions to ask before buying a variable annuity.
What does a variable annuity do for me that I can’t accomplish outside of a variable annuity?
This is a great question and if you ask your annuity sales person you will get a variety of answers. I’m certainly not anti-variable annuity, but they are not the wonder drug that many brokers and registered reps selling them would have us believe. Make sure that you ask the next person who makes a variable annuity sales pitch this very question (and a few others) and listen to their explanation. Maybe you will get a cogent, sensible answer maybe not.
Will I eventually annuitize the contract?
One of the benefits of any form of an annuity is the ability to create a stream of income in retirement. This is the reason for the mortality and expense charges in every contract, this is the insurance company’s compensation for your option to annuitize the contract in the future. If this isn’t something that you are likely to do perhaps a variable annuity is not the answer for you. At the very least find one with reasonable expenses.
Have I maximized my contributions to my 401(k), my IRAs, and other retirement plans?
In my experience contributing to your 401(k) or similar workplace retirement plan and to your IRAs provide a better retirement savings vehicle than a variable annuity, if for no other reason than they usually have lower expenses and don’t have restrictions like surrender charges. In fact I often put a variable annuity lower on the list than investing in a taxable account, though this will vary person by person based on each individual’s situation.
What are the expenses?
As mentioned above many variable annuities are laden with onerous expenses that enrich the insurance company and perhaps the person who sold you the annuity, but likely not you. There are many lower cost annuity products offered by the likes of Vanguard and others that may be worth checking out if a variable annuity is of interest. A fee-only advisor will likely go in this direction, but an annuity sales person can’t as there is no compensation in it for them.
What are my investment options?
Years ago there was an SNL skit that referenced something called “bef” which was almost like beef, but wasn’t. This is similar to the variable annuity world where the investment options are called sub-accounts. They look, feel, and smell like mutual funds but they aren’t mutual funds. They might even have familiar mutual fund sounding names, but they are still different and generally pricier. Understand the investments as this is the vehicle that will fuel your accumulation in the variable annuity.
Are there restrictions if I want to move my money?
As they used to say on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In (NBC from 1968-1973) “… you bet your sweet Bippy…” there are restrictions on moving your money from a variable annuity in most cases. While I can understand taxes and perhaps penalties for withdrawing prior to age 59 ½, the surrender charges on many variable annuities serve to hold your money captive for as many as 10 years even if you find a better deal down the road. Make sure you understand any and all surrender charges and other penalties before buying into a variable annuity and better yet avoid financial products with these charges.
Who stands behind the product?
Annuities are guaranteed by the “full faith” of the insurance company offering the product. Be sure to investigate the financial strength of the issuer as they are the ones responsible for making any annuity payments you might opt for. While annuity defaults are quite rare they do happen and if it does your recourse is likely with a regulator.
Variable annuities are a valid retirement planning tool. Just make sure that you understand what you are buying, why you are buying it, and ALL of the underlying expenses involved. Make sure that you buy the product for the right reasons and not because you succumbed to an aggressive sales pitch.
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