How Safe is Your Money in an Annuity?

Dear Dr. Don, I'm considering an immediate annuity, and I'll invest $100,000 to earn a decent rate of return. I'm currently retired and need the monthly returns to live on.

How safe is an immediate annuity? In other words, can I trust that whichever insurance company I place the money with will deliver that money each month, or is there considerable risk that the insurance company will default or go belly up? In that case, I assume I would lose my entire principal of $100,000. -- James Judicious

Dear James, An annuity is as safe as the insurance company backing it. That's why you want to consider the risk ratings of the annuity provider as part of the due diligence surrounding the investment decision. The likelihood of you losing your entire principal is pretty remote if you do your homework before signing the annuity contract.

Part of that homework is looking into the financial strength of the annuity provider. A.M. Best ratings for insurance companies place firms in three "group" categories: secure, vulnerable or not rated. Secure group ratings can vary from superior to excellent to good. I'm a conservative guy, so I'd want a secure firm with a superior rating. The firms with excellent ratings will tell you there's not enough difference between the superior and excellent ratings to justify crossing the excellent firms off your list. You'll have to decide that for yourself.

For the most part, the insurance industry is regulated by the states and not the federal government. Your state insurance commissioner also monitors the risk attributes of firms operating in the state. States typically have a guaranty association set up to act as a financial backstop should an insurance company become insolvent or file for bankruptcy. Talk to your state's office of the insurance commissioner to learn more about the guaranty funds available.

An immediate annuity just means the annuity payments start now. There are still three different types of annuities: fixed, indexed and variable. There are even more types of options you can tack onto annuities, including inflation riders, payment guarantees and income guarantees. Get comfortable with your investment before signing the contract. Getting buyer's remorse after signing will cost you a pretty penny in surrender fees.

Bankrate's content, including the guidance of its advice-and-expert columns and this website, is intended only to assist you with financial decisions. The content is broad in scope and does not consider your personal financial situation. Bankrate recommends that you seek the advice of advisers who are fully aware of your individual circumstances before making any final decisions or implementing any financial strategy. Please remember that your use of this website is governed by Bankrate's Terms of Use.