Dear Liz: I am 54 and considering retiring in three or four years. I have been fortunate to work at a Fortune 100 company for 30-plus years and have both a defined benefit pension plan and a 401(k). When I retire, we have the option of taking a lump sum or an annuity. Most financial people I talk to strongly recommend taking the lump sum, though I wonder if it is not just so there is more money to manage? My current inclination is to take the annuity (with survivor benefit for my wife). I think we can live off the annuity alone and use the 401(k) for emergency/fun/help-the-kids money, etc. I think if I took the lump sum and invested it, I’d always worry about what the market was doing. Am I off base?
Answer: Not at all.
Theoretically, you often can make more money by taking a lump sum and investing it than by accepting the annuity, which offers a lifetime stream of payments. But perhaps you’ve heard the quote “In theory, theory and practice are the same; in practice, they are not.” Anyone who knows much about behavioral finance knows there are many, many ways such a plan can go wrong.
You could pick the wrong investments, take too much or too little risk, trade too much or spend too much, and wind up much worse off than if you’d chosen the annuity. You could turn over the investing decisions to a pro, but there’s no guarantee that person won’t make mistakes. Even if he or she chooses great investments and allocates your assets well, your nest egg could still take a hit from the market.
If you were comfortable taking that extra risk to get the extra possible reward of more cash, accepting the lump sum would be the way to go. Since you’re not, there’s nothing wrong with taking the annuity. Opting for a survivor’s benefit means your wife will have guaranteed income should you die first.
Before you pull the plug at work, though, make sure you talk to a fee-only planner who charges by the hour to make sure your retirement plan makes sense. (Planners paid by the hour won’t have a vested interest in how you opt to manage your retirement funds.) Your assets probably will have to last 30 or 40 years, and you’ll have to figure out how to pay for the ever-escalating cost of health insurance. This can be a tricky process, so you’ll want expert, unconflicted help.
Dear Liz: I think you missed one of the possibilities when a reader wrote to you about a pitch he received from an insurance salesman. The salesman wanted the reader to stop funding his 401(k) and instead invest in a contract that would guarantee his principal but cap his returns in any given year. You thought the salesman was pitching an equity indexed annuity, but it’s possible he was promoting an indexed universal life policy, which would offer the same guarantees of principal and offer tax-free loans.
Answer: You may be correct — in which case the product being pitched is just as unlikely to be a good fit for the 61-year-old reader as an equity indexed annuity.
Cash-value life insurance policies typically have high expenses and make sense only when there’s a permanent need for life insurance. If the reader doesn’t have people who are financially dependent on him, he may not need life insurance at all.
Furthermore, the “lapse rate” for cash-value life insurance policies tends to be high, which means many people stop paying the costly premiums long before they accumulate any cash value that can be tapped.
Before you invest in any annuity or life insurance product, get an independent second opinion. One way is to run the product past a fee-only financial planner, who should be able to analyze the product and advise you of options that may be a better fit for your situation. If you just want a detailed analysis of the policy itself, you can pay $100 to EvaluateLifeInsurance.org, which is run by former state insurance commissioner James Hunt.
Dear Liz: My former employer is offering the one-time opportunity to receive the value of my pension benefit as a lump-sum payment. The other option is to leave the money where it is and get a guaranteed monthly check from a single life annuity when I reach retirement age. I am 40 and single, and I have been investing regularly in a 401(k) since graduating from college. I have minimal debt aside from a car payment. When does it make financial sense to take a lump sum now instead of an annuity check later?
Answer: Theoretically, you often could do better taking a lump sum and investing it rather than waiting for a payoff in retirement. That assumes that you invest wisely, that the markets cooperate, that you don’t pay too much in investing expenses and that you don’t do anything foolish, like raid the funds early.
That’s assuming a lot. Another factor to consider is that the annuity is designed to continue until you die. It’s a kind of “longevity insurance” that can help you pay your bills if you live a long life.
Some financial advisors will encourage you to take the lump sum, since they may be paid more if you invest it with them. Consider consulting instead a fee-only financial planner who charges by the hour — in other words, someone who doesn’t have a dog in this particular fight. The planner can walk you through the math of comparing a lump sum to a later annuity and help you understand the consequences of both paths. This is a big enough decision that it’s worth paying a few hundred bucks to get some expert advice.