Personal Finance

These are the key questions to ask before buying that annuity

Key Points
  • As retirees struggle to replace their work paychecks with steady income, some may turn to annuities, financial products that provide regular payments in exchange for an upfront lump sum.
  • But because annuities are extremely complicated, many consumers don't know where to start when buying one. And making the wrong purchase can come with high personal costs.
  • Now, one group has is putting out a list of terms and questions for consumers to ask before they sign on the bottom line. 
Peter Cade | Getty Images

It's the challenge many retirees face: How to turn lifetime savings into a steady income stream and not run out of money.

To solve that dilemma, some financial experts suggest annuities, financial products that provide regular payments in return for one upfront lump sum.

But the problem is that many annuities are so complex that it is difficult for individual investors to understand how they work.

Even if they think they know what they are buying, many individuals have been left with a case of buyer's remorse after making a purchase. And it can be difficult to get out of those contracts.

Now, one industry organization, the Alliance for Lifetime Income, is releasing new resources to help individuals better evaluate annuities before they sign up for one.

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That includes a glossary of terms to help demystify industry jargon.

Among the terms are words like rider, an optional benefit that can be added for additional costs, or surrender, a fee you would pay for withdrawing your money early.

The Alliance has also released a list of questions every consumer needs to ask before signing on for an annuity.

Some of the key questions include:

  • What can [annuities] do that other investments cannot?
  • What are the specific costs or expenses for this annuity?
  • Are there add-on benefits to customize this annuity to my specific needs? If so, what do they cost?
  • What are the associated risks if I purchase this annuity? Can I lose money?
  • How and when can I obtain my income? What happens if I need to withdraw some or all my money earlier than expected?
  • What other restrictions should I be aware of before I consider purchasing this annuity?
  • How am I taxed on withdrawals or income taken?
  • If I purchase this annuity, how do you or your firm get paid and how much?

The Alliance's efforts come as many in the financial industry are divided as to whether to recommend and sell these products.

Those in favor of annuities cite a need for a new source of guaranteed income now that traditional pensions have largely disappeared and Social Security benefits represent a smaller fraction of a retiree's total financial needs.

But still others are skeptical of the products. That's as individuals still fall prey to predatory sales practices, which often wind up in arbitration. Meanwhile, some financial advisors say annuities are unnecessarily complex and expensive.

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The Alliance, a non-profit organization which draws support from the biggest annuities firms, hopes to change those opaque sales practices. Along with the list of glossary and questions for consumers, the organization also unveiled its new principles, which includes "transparency and clarity."

"This is a very good way to draw the line in the sand and say let's start having this conversation about the way the marketplace should work," said Jean Statler, executive director at the Alliance.

"Let's get rid of these mistakes and bad actors and figure out how to move forward and be the guiding light," she said.