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Deferred Annuities May Be Unsuitable for Retirees

The note left on Rosemary Franzen’s door read, “Remember me? I’m the handsome young man you were talking to about annuities the other day.”

When her son found the note in her house, it helped explain how she was persuaded to trade her financial security for an inappropriate investment that locked away nearly all of her $500,000 nest egg for 20 years. She was 83.

“I was floored. I couldn’t believe someone would take advantage like that,” said son Robert Franzen of Bulverde, north of San Antonio.

Now his mother can no longer take care of herself and needs the money to pay the $4,200 monthly bill at the New Braunfels nursing home where she is living today.

Lawyers, independent financial planners and AARP Texas officials say that the state’s older residents are being hit as never before with an array of ill-suited, if not fraudulent, investment offers.

With interest rates at record lows, insured investments such as savings accounts, money markets and CDs are yielding so little that offers of sure-fire higher returns can sound alluring. “People go to a free steak dinner or a seminar and someone tells them they are going to guarantee 5 percent or 7 percent on their money when everyone else is paying 2 [percent],” said Bill Perryman, a financial planner in Dallas.

“The financial industry tends to come up with the product-of-the-day that promises to solve all the problems we are going through,” he said. Once items such as high sales commissions and assorted fees buried in the fine print are accounted for, the investment is often far less attractive than the sales pitch, Perryman said.

Lawyer Ingrid Evans, of the Dallas-based firm Waters Kraus, and others are pressing class action lawsuits against nine insurance companies over sales of deferred annuities to people over age 65. The suits accuse the companies of using high-pressure sales tactics to sell annuities ill-suited for older people. Sales are often initiated at free seminars on living trusts or financial planning where salesmen gain access to people’s finances, Evans said. An annuity is a contract sold by a commercial insurance company that pays an income benefit for a specified period of time.

The Texas Department of Insurance said it is getting more complaints about annuity sales to older people. It logged 477 complaints about annuities last year. On its website, a page titled “Is an Annuity Right for You?” openly warns that annuities may not be a good option if you’re retired.

Texas last year began requiring insurance companies to ensure that an annuity be suitable to the buyer’s financial situation and needs. For example, annuities that do not mature until someone is 115 years old clearly are not suitable, said deputy commissioner Ana Smith-Daley.

Tim Morstad, associate state director of advocacy for AARP Texas, said the organization wants to see legislation passed to curb large surrender charges; require commissions, fees and interest rates to be clearly spelled out for consumers; and allow cancellation of annuity purchases within 30 days with a full refund.

AARP also wants legislation to bar agents from using misleading titles such as “senior financial adviser.” “We want to change the whole system of incentives that has agents pushing products that are not right for people,” Morstad said.

Reform could not come soon enough for the Franzen family. After hundreds of phone calls and letters, Robert Franzen said two of the four companies his mother bought annuities from have returned her money. “We’re still working on the others,” he said.

Thomas Korosec has been a journalist in Texas for more than 20 years.

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