Surrender charges are imposed by most, but not all, Deferred Annuities (Immediate Annuities generally impose no surrender charges because most Immediate Annuities cannot be surrendered for cash). It is vitally important that prospective buyers fully understand the impact of these charges on the Deferred Annuity’s cash surrender value, when they’re imposed, and when they’re waived. Some critics of annuities assert that surrender charges are wholly unattractive, that they always work to the buyer’s disadvantage. This is neither accurate nor fair. Let’s look, now, at how they work, and then why they exist in the first place.
Surrender charges are a penalty for withdrawing from or surrendering a Deferred Annuity early. They are applied according to a schedule. Most, but not all, surrender charges decline over time. Example: Year 1 = 10%, Year 2=9%, etc. until Year 11 = 0%. Usually, the charge is imposed on a surrender or withdrawal exceeding a certain “penalty free” percentage of contract value (most commonly, 10%). Often, the surrender charge is waived if the contract owner is confined to a nursing home. Usually (but not always), the surrender charge is waived at death.
Why do these surrender charges even exist?
They exist to reimburse the insurance company for the loss it sustains if a Deferred Annuity is surrendered (either partially or fully) before it has recouped the “acquisition costs” of that annuity. It costs money for an insurance company to put an annuity (or life insurance policy, for that matter) into force. It must pay a commission to the selling agent and costs of processing the annuity application and issue. In addition, the insurance company must set aside statutorily required “reserves” (to ensure that it has the funds to redeem the contracts that it sells), which must be invested very conservatively, at very conservative (low) interest rates. Over time, the insurance company will recoup these costs from its “interest rate spread” (the difference between what the company earns from investing the annuity premium and what it credits to the contract owner). This is why surrender charges generally declines over time.
In the absence of surrender charges, the insurance company would have to find some other way of recouping losses from contracts surrendered early. It could impose a front-end sales charge; most consumers are unwilling to pay sales charges, which is why contracts imposing them are rarely sold. Alternatively, it could impose annual fees or credit interest at a less than competitive rate. Neither alternative is attractive to buyers. Or, recognizing that its losses from early surrenders come only from contracts surrendered early, it could recoup those losses only from those very contracts (which are surrendered early). By choosing this last alternative, the insurance company is free to invest the annuity premium at longer-duration bonds paying higher interest than shorter-duration bonds, from which it can credit interest at a competitive rate.
Thus, surrender charges may be seen as benefits to the buyer, resulting in a higher rate of interest than would be possible without those surrender charges. But they’re also serious restrictions on the liquidity of the money invested (how readily the annuity cash value can be converted to actual cash).
Buyers of deferred annuities should not put money into those contracts if that money may be needed within the surrender charge period. Some agents will object to that last sentence, pointing to the “penalty-free surrender amount” (typically, 10% of the cash value). But the author’s experience (more than forty years in the annuity business) tells him that even when a consumer knows that he may need early access to the money he invested in an annuity, he’s unlikely to know the exact amount. Consequently, I suggest that one should never put money into a deferred annuity that may be needed within the surrender charge period. A deferred annuity is a long term savings instrument and that’s how it should be used. One notable exception is the “MYGA” (multi-year guaranteed annuity). These contracts usually have short surrender charge periods and typically guarantee a rate of interest for that entire period.
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