Workers of the baby boom population are painfully aware that if they lose their savings in another financial crisis, they won’t have enough working years left to earn it back before retirement. About 78% of respondents age 50 and older in one poll say retirement security has become a more important issue for them in the last two to three years.

No wonder 62% told benefits researchers Towers Watson that they would give up some pay for a guaranteed retirement benefit in the consultants’ 2013/2014 Global Benefit Attitudes Survey, released last month. With employer-sponsored retirement plans still skittish about adding guaranteed income policies to their platforms, those near or in retirement may turn to their familiar financial advisor or RIA for help figuring out the best annuity for them. But will offering that advice open advisors to fiduciary liability?

“You advise people to do something, you become the fiduciary—game, set, match,” says attorney Marcia S. Wagner, founder of the Boston-based Wagner Law Group. “So they better be damn sure they know what they’re advising.” To that end, Wagner recommends advisors take a crash course in annuities, especially the variable and indexed annuities, since guaranteed income riders are commonly added to them, sometimes providing payments up until death. And that’s a long time to be monitoring an annuity provider.

“It’s a continuous job,” says Wagner. “Financial advisors are now in a situation where to stay in the industry they must have a working knowledge of guaranteed lifetime withdrawal benefits, independent of whether they want to be fiduciaries or not. They must be able to educate people. And if they can’t, they need to partner with people who can.” Wagner sees this as part of an evolving trend in best practices for advisors. “Baby boomers want paychecks for life,” she adds.

This form of insurance has attracted the interest of regulators, too, who want to make defined contribution plans (in which workers are responsible for their own saving and investing with an employer’s help if not always its money) look more like defined benefit pension plans. DB plans, like your father may have had, kept the liability of a lifetime monthly pension payment with the employer. To give today’s employees some savings protection and income guarantee, regulators, like the Department of Labor, want to incentivize plan sponsors to add in-plan annuities to their DC platforms. But the task of vetting and selecting one or more annuity providers and monitoring them for the life of each employee is expected to test the capacity of most sponsors and their ability to pay for such long-term services.

Among several possible solutions being considered is turning to investment advisors or fund providers to vet and monitor insurers, but so far the major companies in those industries are not offering to take on the fiduciary responsibility. Wagner says a limited liability of, say, two years might work, before the fiduciary obligation reverts to the employee or retiree. That would be similar to the Labor Department’s current safe-harbor guidelines for distributing retirement plan assets upon retirement. The sponsor’s liability ends when the funds are transferred.

Sponsors are already being nudged by the Department of Labor, in a recent list of “tips,” to offer participants more custom investment options, such as custom target-date funds. The use of local financial advisors, who would hopefully have a more comprehensive picture of a participant’s financial needs, is also being considered. The option has “generated a lot of interest in the role local advisors or planners may play,” notes Catherine Gordon, a principal in Vanguard’s Investment Strategy Group.

Clients will be asking for help in the “decumulation” stage of retirement, too, says Wagner. “This could be as or even more important than the savings stage.” This post-retirement period really is the culmination, the final test, of a lifetime of retirement planning. The careful distribution of these monies is crucial to elderly clients, who are totally dependent on their savings. This is where the diligence in vetting a company now will pay off 30 or 40 years down the road.

The specter of policy defaults loom. Though rare in the industry, they have happened. The ’90s saw several large insurers go under: Executive Life Insurance Co. of California, which had A.M. Best’s highest rating until January 1990, failed in1991. Mutual Benefit Life Insurance Company of Newark, Confederation Life Insurance Co. and California-based First Capital Holdings fell because of asset runs by investors. Today, Wagner believes, “some of the state insurance guarantee funds would have a very difficult time trying to make someone whole. Someone buys an annuity thinking, ‘I’m safe.’” She cautions that advisors have a duty to know the insurers’ assets, surpluses, reserves, lawsuits, complaints—and where the companies are based, since guarantee funds vary widely from one state to the next, she says.

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