The John C. Bogle Center for Financial Literacy is pleased to present the fifteenth episode of Bogleheads® Live. Jorge Soriano CFP®, EA explains how to review an annuity, determine its fees, and helping you decide whether to keep it
Jorge Soriano: reviewing annuities
Jon Luskin: Bogleheads® Live is our ongoing Twitter Space series where the do-it-yourself investor community asks their questions to financial experts live on Twitter. You can ask your questions by joining us for the next Twitter Space.
Get the dates and times for the next Bogleheads® Live by following the John C. Bogle Center for Financial Literacy on Twitter. That's @bogleheads. For those that can't make the live events, episodes are recorded and turned into a podcast. This is that podcast.
Thank you for joining us for the 15th Bogleheads® Live. My name is Jon Luskin, and I'm your host. My guest for today is Jorge Soriano. Today we will be discussing your questions about annuities and what to do with an old, complex annuity you were sold in the past.
Let's start by talking about the Bogleheads®, a community of investors who believe in keeping it simple following a small number of tried-and-true investing principles. You can learn more at the John C. Bogle Center for Financial Literacy at boglecenter.net.
The annual Bogleheads® conference is on October 12th through 14th in the Chicago area. Speakers include Eric Balchunas, author of “The Bogle Effect”, economist Burton Malkiel, Jason Zweig of the Wall Street Journal, Rick Ferri, host of the Bogleheads® on Investing podcast, Christine Benz, Director of Personal Finance at Morningstar, and much more.
Mark your calendars for future episodes of Bogleheads® Live. Next, we'll have Avantis Investors’ Ted Randall answering your questions about capital gain distributions from mutual funds and why they matter in both up and down markets. The following week Steven Fox, CFP®, EA will be fielding questions about tax planning for Millennials. Other future guests include Barry Ritholtz, J.L. Collins, and Jim Dahle, AKA “The White Coat Investor.”
Before we get started on today's show, a disclaimer. This is for informational and entertainment purposes only, and should not be relied upon as a basis for investment, tax, or other financial planning decisions.
Let's get started on today's show with Jorge Soriano. Jorge is the founder of Financial Optimist, not just a fee-only, but an advice-only fee-for-service financial planning firm committed to providing financial services to clients regardless of their age or accumulated assets.
Jorge, thank you for joining us today on Bogleheads® Live. Let's start with, what do do-it-yourself investors need to know about analyzing an existing annuity?
Jorge Soriano: There's different types of annuities. For those that are looking at analyzing their existing annuity, you want to figure out what type of annuity you have.
So, the first one is variable annuity. In addition to the variable annuity, you also have another option called indexed annuity. There is also an income annuity. And then finally you have one called the MYGA or the Multi-Year Guaranteed Annuity.
The first one I mentioned was a variable annuity. This is the most complex of them all. And requires us to really read the statement, really read the contract, and ask lots and lots and lots of questions. The other types of annuities that I mentioned are much easier to understand.
I mentioned indexed annuity. This is a type of annuity in which you put in your money, it normally tracks, let's say the S &P500 - an index - and if the S&P500 goes up, you go up with it. If it goes down, you don't lose anything. The catch is that as it goes up, and let's say the S &P500 were to earn 20% or 10% or whatever percentage it earns, you are capped at a certain rate.
Then you have the income annuity. This type of annuity, the most common one is known as a SPIA or a Single Premium Immediate Annuity. Think of it like a pension. Think of it like you purchasing a pension plan, whether it be an immediate pension or a deferred pension, where you put in the money today and if you were to start collecting it tomorrow, depending on the distribution method that you choose, depending on how fast you start collecting and your age, and your life expectancy, you are then guaranteed an income stream for the rest of your life and/or the rest of your partner's life. I am prone to recommending that as a great solution for those individuals that are trying to either fill a gap or have guaranteed incomes first and foremost.
Finally, the MYGA product or the Multi-Year Guaranteed Annuity really resembles a CD structure, as you get from your bank. The certificate of deposit that gives you a guaranteed rate of return. The longer that you hold onto that annuity - that MYGA product - the more you can expect to earn from interest.
They're not CDs because a CD is protected by the FDIC. Insurance products are not protected by banks. They do have guarantees, but it's a state insurance guarantee. They're pretty protected as long as you're dealing with an “A” or an “A-” carrier, I think that that is perfectly fine.
Jon Luskin: You shared with me in the past, when you're working with folks who come to you, and they come to you as a financial professional, and they say, "Hey, I've got this thing I don’t know what to do with," and then you call up the insurance company with the annuity owner on the phone together.
And while certainly, the insurance company person on the line is going to answer your questions, they're not going to necessarily divulge everything you need to know, and you need to know what questions to ask them.
What are those questions to get the info you need to know help you decide, “Hey, I should keep this annuity, or should I get rid of it?”
Jorge Soriano: The call in general is going to be one where you are asking the sales representative to simply walk you through. Tell them, please, first and foremost, do not use complex language with me, keep things simple with me. I am simply calling today to understand more about the account that I am in. And I want you to please take 10 minutes, 15 minutes, and walk me through every option that I have with the contract that I purchased many, many years ago.
Can you tell me in detail, in simple terms, how this contract works? How does the rider work? If I were to wait and I get a higher payout, how does the variable annuity work?
The first few questions that I think are important to always, always, always call and confirm about is: number one, what are the fees? There are a lot of different fees, especially with variable annuities.
And they're going to be something called an admin fee or an administrative fee. This is something that the insurer charges for operating that account or administering that contract or processing the payments. Normally you're looking at no more than 0.25%. This is a very standard fee for a variable annuity contract. But that's one fee out of four others that you need to be aware of.
Another one that's important for all consumers to be aware of is an M&E fee or the mortality and expense fee. This is essentially to compensate the insurer for the risk of the annuity recipients living longer than expected, or make sure that they're able to pay that death benefit for those that live really long. The mortality and expense fee, I've seen it range from 0.15%, 0.25%, and 0.50% even.
Between those alone, the admin fee and the mortality and expense fee, you're already at 50 basis points. Half a point, give or take. Now, sure it could be a little bit less. It could be a little bit more.
Outside of that, there's the annual fee. This is in addition to an administrative fee. These are normally rare. And even if there were an annual fee, fortunately, we're looking at a flat fee this time, not based on a percentage. And if there is a flat annual fee, we're looking at $50, which most contracts ideally can be waived, but if not, that's another fee that you need to be aware of.
One of the other more important fees is called a surrender schedule fee. This is charged when withdrawing greater than you are eligible to withdraw on an annual basis, which is typically 10%. With the assumption that you are looking to withdraw, let's say, 15% of the contract value, the first 10%, you do not have to pay that surrender fee, but anything over that 10% you do have to pay that surrender fee.
Normally it is a laddered fee, where in the first year it could easily be nine the second year eight, the third year seven. As you get closer to out-of-surrender then, ideally, that is when you are either turning on payments or withdrawing out of the annuity altogether, because there is no longer a surrender fee.
Lastly, the most important out all the other fees, because the other fees that I mentioned, it's outside of your control. You can't do anything about it. If you are already in an annuity, there's really nothing that you can do. You just simply either have to wait or you just have to take it as is. It's not like you can call the insurance company and say, “Hey, I don't agree with this surrender fee, go ahead and change it.” No, you can't do that. It's a contract.
But the other part, which is the actual fund expense fee, or the actual ratio like a regular mutual fund, the mutual funds that are built into the annuity product are rarely, rarely 0.25%, 0.50% as an expense. The norm instead is a fund that charges consumers in the 0.90% - I've seen them as high as 1.60% - which as Bogleheads® know, fees matter. You can try to go into the lowest fee that they have, which unfortunately is sometimes not to our liking, but it's better than maybe the 1.60% fee, for example.
Jon Luskin: Hi folks, Jon Luskin, your Bogleheads® Live host jumping in for a quick podcast edit.
Here, Jorge mentioned mutual fund fees on annuities. Let's break that down for those who aren't annuity nerds.
So far, Jorge already mentioned different types of annuities and how they provide an investment return. We talked about Multi-Year Guaranteed Annuities, or MYGAs, which is the insurance company version of a bank’s certificate of deposit or CD. We also talked about an income annuity, which can offer a monthly payment for life. And we talked about indexed annuities, which give you a portion of the investment return of an index, such as the S&P500.
Just now, Jorge talks about a variable annuity. With a variable annuity our investment return comes from mutual funds held inside the variable annuity. As the mutual fund increases in value, the value of your annuity increases. Hence the term variable annuity.
With a variable annuity, you get to choose which mutual funds to invest in. However, unlike a brokerage account, you don't get to invest in whatever you want. A variable annuity is more like a workplace retirement plan, such as a 401(k) or 403(b). You've got a small list of mutual funds to choose from. And unfortunately, generally, all the mutual funds in variable annuities have high fees.
To Jorge’s point, if you're already in a variable annuity and surrendering it or transferring it isn't the best option, then you'll want to be thoughtful about the fees of the mutual fund option you choose.
And now back to the show.
[Jorge Soriano: When you add up the mortality and expense fee or the admin fee or the surrender fee, and on top of that, you tackle that mutual fund fee, that can get extremely expensive.
And then finally, the other big fee is the rider fee, or additional optional items that you can add to your variable annuity when you first purchase it.
When you make this call, you need to understand the fees. You can ask them line-by-line, I want you to break it up for me. Don't just give me the full fee altogether. Break it up for me. I want to hear the admin fee. I want to hear the M&E fee. I want to hear if you have any sort of annual fees that I should be aware of. I want to understand the surrender schedule fee. I want to definitely understand the fund expense ratio fee because that is something that you can control. And then lastly, the rider fee.
Understand how the rider works. There are so many different types of riders out there. It's impossible to know what you are in or what type of rider you have without calling them. I could be the brightest person in the room, but even looking at the statement, I am not going to know everything that I should know about that account unless I actually have the contract, which is 50+ pages long. Or, the easiest thing to do is to call them.
The variable annuity does have two separate accounts, one that is your actual value and then another value that is more of a hypothetical or more of a pension-based value. This is the value that is touted as giving you a 5%, 6%, 7% guaranteed increase. But it's not the actual contract value. It's not the actual value that if tomorrow you wanted to withdraw your full amount, that's not what you would receive.
You need to understand those two different types of values and understand on the goals that you have for that account in order to make the best decision in either (A) to keep it (B) to let it be and maybe move it to another company or to completely withdraw together. That first conversation will help you get there.
I recommend that folks have this call every few years. Maybe you missed a particular tip that was recommended or a particular topic that was discussed. And maybe we forgot about it, or maybe there's something new you learned for the next call.
Jon Luskin: All good Bogleheads®, as you pointed out, know that managing fees is critical to investing success. What is a reasonable fee versus what is an egregious fee with respect to helping folks make the decision to keep an existing annuity or blow out of it or choose some sort of distribution option?
Jorge Soriano: It's going to be dependent on a lot of factors. No riders. No additional bells and whistles. A regular variable annuity that is meant to defer gains realistically should be less than 1%. Is that something that you are going to get? Possibly not.
There are other types of annuities called no-load variable annuities. Ideally, that is the type of variable annuities we could definitely get 1% or less all-in with the admin fee, with the mortality and expense fee. The great thing that a lot of the no-load annuity options have is that many of them also don't have a surrender fee schedule. So, you do avoid additional fees. More importantly, many of them also have lower-cost mutual fund expense ratios. Ideally, it's less than 1%.
But is that the best annuity? That's the hard part for me to answer without knowing all of the different factors, maybe a variable annuity, one that defers income, is not a great solution. Instead, the one that would make the best sense for the consumer is one that does carry a rider. One that does carry an income benefit can be turned into a pension at a later time.
I go to two websites, trusted resources that give you the information without all of the additional fuzz. That first website is going to be by an insurance agent that is extremely knowledgeable in all things annuity. And that is Stan the Annuity Man. Stantheannuityman.com.
The other I use is Annuityadvantage.com. Annuityadvantage.com, in less than one minute, you could have an understanding of the current rates of the Multi-Year Guaranteed Annuities. They make it extremely easy for consumers to review, shop around, and learn. You could either look at the best MYGA rates, or the best income annuity rates. As I mentioned, the SPIA, which is one that I do tend to frequent as a solution, is that pension purchase essentially. And then they sell the other different options, the indexed annuity, the variable annuity.
Even though technically you don't pay a commission directly to the insurance agent that is helping you purchase that annuity, the insurance agent is definitely getting paid a commission from the insurance company. Variable annuities are going to pay the insurance agent much, much more than the other three that I mentioned.
Which one do you think is the least amount of commission? The CD option - the MYGA. Because the MYGA is straightforward. Very similar to, for example, how a whole life policy will earn the agent much, much more than a regular term life policy.
For those that are Bogleheads®, we're all-in about invest and insure completely separately. You invest your funds in a low-cost index fund. You insure yourself with a term life policy. If you combine both in a whole life policy, there's going to be much, much higher fees.
And obviously that insurance agent will also collect a higher commission. There's always going to be conflicts of interest with the individuals and the insurance companies wanting to push for these types of solutions when sometimes they're just not best suited for the consumer.
Jon Luskin: I need to echo what you just said about conflicts of interest. Be careful where you get your advice from. If you go to an annuity salesman with your existing annuity and say, “Hey, what should I do?” If their answer is exchange for this other annuity instead, it could be helpful to ask them, “are you going to make money if I do that?”
Same thing, if you go work with someone to help you analyze an annuity, and that person is compensated for managing assets. If their answer is, “blow out of this annuity and oh, I'll manage that new portfolio,” there's going to be a conflict of interest with that advice.
If you work with someone who is compensated via a flat fee, you don't have to worry about that conflict of interest. Paying a flat fee for transparent advice can help manage some of those conflicts.
Let's start with a case study that came in last minute. This one is from user name ‘OMYx3’ from the Bogleheads® forums. And they write:
“We are helping my wife's father determine what to do with a variable annuity. He is the sole beneficiary of the annuity which was owned by his wife before she passed away earlier this year. The annuity was an Equitable Accumulator Elite non-qualified contract. It has a value of about $135,000, including capital gains of approximately $87,000. They have owned it long enough and therefore there should be no surrender fees. Their financial advisor is saying it has a mandatory annuitization at age 85 and she is currently - my wife's father - age 82.
One option would be to cash out the annuity and pay taxes on the gains of $87,000. Another option would be to keep it with Equitable and annuitize it before turning 85. The financial advisor mentioned a Lincoln Financial product, ChoicePlus variable annuity, which doesn't require annuitization until age 99 and could be transferred from Equitable to Lincoln without any taxable event.
We want to help get him the highest after-tax value out of this annuity and would prefer not to annuitize it, unless there's a way to do this where we can still get the full value of the annuity or something close to it. Thanks so much for any thoughts and ideas.”
Jorge Soriano: It depends if dad is needing liquidity. It depends if dad needs a little extra income to maybe fund long-term care or paying taxes from this money.
They have three years to essentially make this decision if they want to make sure that the annuity is not annuitized. And now it is out of surrender, which is good.
You mentioned that there is a non-qualified account. That means that this was used with regular money that was sitting in the bank and they used it to purchase it many years ago. If the account has $135,000 and they have $87,000 of gain, it won't be capital gains unfortunately. This is going to be a gain that will be taxed as ordinary income. If we don't want a huge tax bill, we don't want to close it out unless maybe father may need some sort of additional liquidity. Sometimes it's best to not worry about taxes as much as the main priorities.
[00:23:04] The options that you have now that the account is truly out of surrender are (A) move it into a new product. When you do that the good news is as long as a 1035 exchange is done, meaning from an annuity to an annuity, you don't have to worry about paying that gain of $87,000. That's good. The problem with reissuing into a new product is that then you have to go into the surrender fee. You have to have a brand-new expense ratio. You have to have probably even more and higher fees now.
Instead of going into another variable annuity, maybe dad could easily go into a MYGA solution, that Multi-Year Guaranteed Annuity. It is dependent on state. When I last checked we could have a CD-like account where you are earning 3.5%, maybe even 4%, if you lock it in for a three-year, five-year period.
But is that the right thing? If we do not want to pay the tax on this huge gain of $87,000, then it sounds to me that either (A) leaving it there may be good. The issue with that is that in three years it will annuitize. At that time, they'll start paying income.
(2) Before the next three years, you may want to decide to move it as a 1035 exchange into either a MYGA product, an income annuity product, or an indexed annuity product.
Transferring it to a variable annuity product I do not think would make the best sense. The variable annuity option is going to be the one that is the most expensive option and also the one that will more than likely underperform comparing to the other three options that I mentioned.
[00:25:13] And then on a worst-case scenario, we could always discuss the idea of withdrawing in small increments. And ideally by withdrawing in smaller increments, you will pay some taxes, but if withdrawn over a four, five-year period, ideally that would help in not having to pay the full tax of $87,000 as a one-time ordinary income.
[Jon Luskin: Jon Luskin here, jumping in for one more podcast edit.
Here, Jorge talks about making multiple distributions from a tax-deferred annuity in order to manage a tax bill. Let's talk about how that works for those folks who aren't tax planning nerds.
The U.S. tax code is progressive. That means if you make a little bit of money, you pay a little bit of taxes. But if you make just a bit more money, you can pay a lot more in taxes.
You can better manage your tax bill by spreading out any income over multiple years. That strategy keeps you from bumping up into higher tax brackets, having you pay a lot more taxes on just a little bit more of income.
Jorge Soriano: It would be suitable for you to consider the MYGA option or the indexed annuity option. The income annuity option, I don't think would make sense, or else you would just simply annuitize. Now, before you choose that, it's also important that you do your due diligence in understanding how much you would derive as income for the rest of dad's life. The better option would be to let it be for the time being, and start doing your due diligence today.
But going into the variable annuity, the Lincoln annuity without even knowing that product, because the truth is that I don't know that product inside and out right now, I would be very cautious in doing that. I may recommend that product if I knew that product inside and out, and if I really felt that it met all the requirements that the consumer is looking for. I just don't know that product. That's the truth. Because that's the one thing that you need to have as a consumer and being an advocate for your father-in-law is that you need to figure out why is this option being on the table first and foremost. If this is another variable annuity, I don't know if this will help. I really don't. Instead, maybe the other types of annuity options are better suited.
I would be very cautious in taking advice from the commissionable agent, knowing that he's going to get a huge whopping commission just in putting you in a brand-new variable annuity. Ideally challenging the advisor, I think in this case, is a good thing to do.
Jon Luskin: Going back to what we just touched on earlier, how is that advisor compensated? Is that advisor that's recommending that Lincoln Financial product, the ChoicePlus variable annuity, are they compensated if you end up buying that product? And I say that to user OMYx3. That's what you want to find out. That's going to help you figure out if you're getting advice versus a thinly disguised sales pitch.
This question is from user u080909cherie from the Bogleheads® forums who writes:
“I think I have a high-fee complex annuity that I purchased in the past, and I don't know what to do with it. Sit on it or do one of the five payout plans. If a payout plan, then which one's best?”
Jon: “There are five plans, mainly centered around annuitant’s death and survivors starting at retirement date.
- Plan A, life annuity.
- Plan B, life annuity or 3, 5, 10 or 15 year-certain.
- Plan C, life annuity, installment refund.
- Plan D, joint and life survivor annuity, no refund.
- Plan E, payouts for a specified period of 10 to 30 years chosen by the annuitant.”
This is less an annuity analysis question than it is a distribution question because you could similarly apply this question to a pension at a company. Jorge, I'm curious, what are your thoughts on the various payout options?
Jorge Soriano: This is going to be one of those answers that it's going to depend on the main goals. We need to factor in life expectancy.
I like the conservative option known as “life with cash refund”. Payments do last, and they continue to pay until death. But if you've died before receiving enough payments to repay that $12,000 that the contract is worth, your beneficiaries - whomever they would be - listed would now receive the difference as a lump sum.
In other words, if you collect $100 a month for the rest of your life and on month one, god forbid something happens, you've now passed away. Assuming that the contract value was $12,000, you've only received $100 as a pension. The difference of $11,900 would go to your named beneficiaries. That option I really like because you are betting that if in a worst-case scenario something happens to you and you are not able to truly see the full $12,000 - and more ideally - because if you have a longer life expectancy ideally this contract can pay you throughout your life until you're a hundred years old. And now you've collected $20,000, let's say.
But if not, at least you can rest assured that that $12,000, the contract value as it stands, will stay in your family whether it be to you or to a named beneficiary or to a named organization of your choosing.
The alternative is to start receiving it and then unfortunately something bad happens, and now the money is gone forever.
Jon Luskin: Certainly, if your goal is to keep wealth in the family that can be a good way to do it. Worst-case scenario planning suggests that life annuity or that joint-and life survivor annuity.
David from Twitter asked, “Why don't insurance companies offer inflation-protected products. Why is it relatively difficult to figure out the true cost of annuity? Why haven't fees come down for annuities as much as for other investment products?”
Jorge Soriano: This is partly due, first and foremost, to this misleading sales pitch that many annuity sales agents say time and time again, like "there's no cost to you."
Some annuities truly have no fee. Like MYGA, like the income annuity, like the indexed annuity. The truth is that all annuities have an inherent cost associated with them. They might not be transparent.
It's a bit of a problem that I see in the industry when these are touted and sold as “no cost at all” to you as consumer where yes, it's true that there is not a fee, but there are inherent costs that the consumer does need to be aware of.
David, I feel your pain. But know that the industry is changing and just like it changed many, many decades ago with Jack Bogle and at the time the way he pioneered the low-cost index fund, there are annuity options out there, no-load products, total all-in costs are much, much lower.
Look at the no-load annuity variable options that may have favorable interest rates to that purchaser or that individual that is looking at an annuity option versus that same commission-based annuity.
Will they ever be lower than other investment products? No, because in many ways a variable annuity, it's not an investment, it's insurance. An investment is meant to provide lots of great growth versus insurance that it's meant to provide, first and foremost, some sort of protection.
Jon Luskin: Final thoughts or anything else you'd like to share, what folks should know about annuities?
Jorge Soriano: I think it makes a lot of sense for folks that have an annuity account or an annuity policy or contract to call the client service line. Don't call the financial advisor that sold you the product. Call directly the insurance carrier. Spend 15 minutes every three years, give or take, have a conversation about going over the fees, going over the riders, going over the options.
If it's an indexed annuity, ideally, you're having this conversation once a year, because you have options to choose from and options to change if needed.
If it's an income annuity, there's nothing you can do. Once you start collecting your pension, that's it.
[00:34:38] Now, there's some that you can technically withdraw. Now it will affect your total pension going forward. But as far as the SPIA option goes, the Single Premium Immediate Annuity option, that one, once you start it or you defer it there's really not much you could do.
With the MYGA or the Multi-Year Guaranteed Annuities, ideally, you're shopping to get the best rate because here's the truth: if you go to the bank, the local institution that you deal with, they may not actually get you the best rate. Best rates, for the most part, very similar to a savings account. They're going to be a little bit more hidden, meaning that you have to do a little bit more shopping. You have to maybe go online. You have to do your due diligence because if you just take up the word from the credit union or from the bank, you're not going to get the best rates.
Jon Luskin: Super, thank you, Jorge.
Well, that's all the time we have for today. Thank you to Jorge for joining us today and thank you for everyone who joined us for today's Bogleheads® Live.
Finally, we'd love to get your feedback. If you have a comment or guest suggestion, tag your host @JonLuskin on Twitter.
Thank you again, everyone. I look forward to seeing you all again on June 30th, when Ted Randall of Avantis Investors will be answering your questions about capital gain distributions from mutual funds and why it matters in both up and down markets. Until then have a great week.