Saturday, 6 March 2010

Life insurance and the annuity option

Looking around the news, there is a story that the insurance regulators from five US states have just agreed a $2 million settlement with two Nationwide Life companies for failing to properly supervise the sale of annuities through one of their agents.

This raises two questions. What exactly are annuities? and What can go wrong with them? An annuity is a variation on the traditional life insurance policy. As with any permanent policy, you pay a premium which is invested to build up a cash value. But, depending on the terms of the contract, you can receive payment of a lump sum or, more usually, a regular income from the insurance company before your death. For most people it's the same as saving for retirement, except you buy a pension that pays out after you retire.

To ensure the maximum control over annuities, they can only be bought through life insurance companies. In every US state, there is a Department or Office of Insurance to regulate local insurance companies. As you will understand from the news story, if an insurance company acts against the interests of its policyholders, the states can step in to fine the company and order the company to pay compensation to the policyholders affected. In the case of annuities, this is particularly important because the premiums are usually deductible from income before tax. The states therefore have a direct interest in ensuring annuities are not used for unlawful tax avoidance purposes.

Annuities are more complicated than the traditional life insurance contracts and it is always a good idea to have independent advice before buying. In theory, this ensures the fees and charges made by the insurance company are reasonable and that the minimum guaranteed amounts are a realistic investment return on the premiums you pay. During the first phase of the contract, all benefits are deferred, i.e. assuming your life continues, no benefits are paid. But when the trigger occurs - this may be a specific date or an event - the investment fund begins to make payments either to you or the person you nominated to receive the income. This payment can continue for a set period of time or during your lifetime. There can also be benefits paid to your dependents on death. None of this should prevent you from getting life insurance quotes for annuities through sites like this. Getting information about financial products is always useful. But never buy an annuity unless you are sure you understand exactly what the life insurance company is offering.

In the news story, a financial advisory firm in Kansas acted as the agent of two Nationwide Life companies. It sold annuities and then later persuaded its clients to transfer to a new set of annuities specially created by the Nationwide Life companies. In all cases, this transfer caused a loss of investment value to the clients and resulted in them paying $10 million in fees. When complaints were made, the Nationwide Life companies have reinstated the original policies, refunded the fees and paid a penalty to the state regulators. As an aside, this is what should be happening on a regular basis to all the brokers who missold sub-prime mortgages before the housing bubble burst. If you think you have been missold a life insurance product through life insurance quotes obtained online or as a result of bad advice, complain to your local state's Department or Office of Insurance. If your complaint is upheld, you will be compensated for all your losses.


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