Massmutual Annuity Reviews

MassMutual Safe Return Fixed Indexed Annuity Review

bio-pic

byNikhil Bhauwala

Fri Feb 16 2024

Author @ AdvisorWorld.com Inc
MassMutual Safe Return Fixed Indexed Annuity Review

Introduction

Fixed Index Annuities are contracts between the annuitant and an insurance company in which the insurance company promises to credit interest based on the performance of a certain stock market index. Fixed Index Annuities have an inbuilt capital protection feature, so your principal will remain safe even if the index goes down.

Annuities are complex products, and many advisors try to missell them without properly understanding the buyer’s needs. Thus, you must educate yourself on these products and not solely depend upon the annuity agent’s high-pressure sales pitch.

This article discusses an in-depth review of the MassMutual Safe Return Fixed Indexed Annuity. MassMutual Safe Return is a deferred, fixed-indexed annuity that may be a good option if you are looking for a fixed-indexed annuity that offers tax-deferred growth and downside protection with a core focus on lifetime income payments and enhanced death benefits. This annuity offers some good indexing options, which have the ability to provide reasonably expected returns in the market. After extensive research and due diligence, I have provided an in-depth and unbiased analysis of this plan.

The review of the MassMutual Safe Return Fixed Indexed Annuity will be broken into multiple subcategories:

  • Product Description
  • Rates and Costs Associated with the MassMutual Safe Return Fixed Indexed Annuity
  • Riders
  • What Makes This Product Stand Out?
  • What I Don’t Like
  • Company Details
  • Conclusion

Product Description - MassMutual Safe Return Fixed Indexed Annuity

The MassMutual Safe Return is a Fixed Indexed Annuity (FIA) plan that offers the annuitant (annuity investor) an opportunity to earn a market index-linked return without having to incur the risk of market downside. This is a suitable plan for people who are looking for a fixed-indexed annuity that offers tax-deferred growth and downside protection with a core focus on lifetime income payments and enhanced death benefits. The annuity also offers a return of premium guarantee in case of surrender, which will be discussed later in this review.

Let’s have a look at the high-level fine print of the MassMutual Safe Return Fixed Indexed Annuity, and then we will discuss each point in detail.

Product NameSafe Return
Issuing CompanyMassachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual)
AM Best RatingA++ (1st of 13 ratings)
Withdrawal Charge Period(s)10 years
Maximum Issue Age85 Years
Minimum Initial Purchase Amount$25,000
Surrender Charge Schedule10%, 9%, 8%, 7%, 6%, 5%, 4%, 3%, 2%, 1%
Crediting Period and Strategies1-year point-to-point with participation rate, 1-year point-to-point with caps, or 1-year fixed with interest rate guaranteed
Plan TypesRA, Roth IRA, Nonqualified Account, SEP IRA, SIMPLE IRA, 401(a), etc.
IndexesS&P 500 Index, S&P Risk Control Index, and iShares U.S. Real Estate Index
Free Withdrawals10% of the annuity’s Accumulated Value per year
Death BenefitUpon the annuitant’s death, the beneficiary will get greater of (i) Surrender Value or (ii) Return of Premium Value
Free BenefitsNursing Home and Terminal Illness Waivers Return of premium guarantee in case of surrender or death
Optional RidersThe annuitant can chose from the following paid optional riders: Lifetime Income Rider Enhanced Death Benefit Rider
Guaranteed Minimum Surrender Value00% of purchase payments plus interest credited at minimum guaranteed rate less withdrawals and early withdrawals charges
RMD FriendlyYes

How does the MassMutual Safe Return Fixed Indexed Annuity policy work?

Any annuitant (maximum age at the time of policy issue: 85) can purchase the MassMutual Safe Return Fixed Indexed Annuity with a minimum initial purchase amount of $25,000, and in return, he will earn market index returns (calculated through a formula that we will discuss shortly), credited as per the chosen crediting period. Apart from the regular crediting period, there are various events that may trigger earnings credit: On free withdrawals, for a long-term care event or terminal illness or injury event, or when a death benefit is payable. Additionally, the annuitant has the option to select from two paid riders (lifetime income benefit and death benefit riders), which will be discussed in detail later in this article.

The MassMutual Safe Return Fixed Indexed Annuity offers the annuitant to choose from one or more of the three indexes (S&P 500 Index, S&P Risk Control Index, and iShares U.S. Real Estate Index) to determine his earnings crediting formula. Each index has one strategy to choose from. The plan also offers a fixed-rate guaranteed interest strategy to choose from, making a total of 4 strategy options. We will discuss each available index briefly:

  1. S&P 500 Index: The S&P 500 index is one of the most popular and oldest indexes in the world. It tracks 500 large-cap publicly traded stocks listed in the United States. It is a reliable index and has often succeeded in the test of time. It is very important to note that, similar to most other annuities, the MassMutual Safe Return Fixed Indexed Annuity offers the S&P 500 index with caps in place, meaning that your interest-earning capacity is capped. These rates tend to change frequently; I will discuss more on the rates shortly.
  2. iShares U.S. Real Estate: The iShares U.S. Real Estate Index, often represented through an Exchange-Traded Fund (ETF) like the iShares U.S. Real Estate ETF (IYR), is designed to track the performance of the U.S. real estate sector. It predominantly includes stocks of companies involved in real estate, particularly Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) and real estate management and development firms. This index offers investors diversified exposure to the real estate market, reflecting broader sector trends influenced by factors such as interest rates, economic conditions, and property values.
  3. S&P 500 Risk Control Index: The S&P 500 Risk Control Index is a strategic financial tool designed to measure the performance of the S&P 500 while maintaining a targeted level of risk. It does this by dynamically adjusting its exposure to the S&P 500 based on the volatility of the index. When volatility increases, the index reduces its exposure to the S&P 500 and increases its holdings in less volatile assets like cash or fixed income, and vice versa when volatility decreases. This approach aims to offer a more stable investment experience, especially appealing to risk-averse investors or those looking for a balance between growth and protection in volatile markets. While these volatility controls may result in less fluctuation in rates of return when compared with indexes that don’t use them, they also may reduce the overall rate of return compared with those other indexes.

Note: In addition to allocating the funds in the following indexes, the annuitant also has the option to allocate funds at a fixed interest. These Fixed Rates tend to change from time to time. The Fixed Value Rate for the 10-year withdrawal charge period at the time of writing this article was 3.80%. You can view the latest rates of this annuity here.

Rates and Costs associated with the MassMutual Safe Return Fixed Indexed Annuity

The earnings crediting formulaThe earnings crediting formula is the most important part of this annuity discussion. It is important to know that we don’t simply get the index return credited to our annuity. There are a few rates, caps, spreads, and triggers that the company has in place that affect our earnings. These rates tend to change over time, and the updated rates can always be checked on the company’s website.

Let’s have a look at the MassMutual Safe Return Fixed Index Annuity rate sheet (as of January 2024) to understand how the earnings are determined.

MassMutual Safe Return Fixed Index Annuity rate sheet

From the above rate chart, you will notice that there are 4 interest crediting options (1 fixed and 3 indexed). Let’s have a look at different terms that are used by the company in the MassMutual Safe Return chart rate:

  1. Participation Rate (PR): The participation rate describes the annuitant’s participation percentage in a return of an index. For example, suppose the participation rate is 90%, and the index returned 6% over the agreed time. In that case, the annuitant will be eligible for 150% of the return, i.e., 5.4%.
  2. Cap Rates: It means at what rate your interest-earning capacity is capped. For example, if an index returned 12% but the contract’s cap rate is 6%. In this situation, the annuitant will be eligible for an interest credit of 6% only. It doesn’t matter how much the index goes above the cap rate; the maximum interest that can be earned is the cap rate.
  3. Declared Strategy Interest Rate: If you opt for a declared strategy / fixed account rate, you simply earn the fixed rates for a particular period specified by the company before your policy begins. These rates usually tend to be low/at par as compared to other fixed avenues, such as CDs and MYGAs, so you should avoid fixed rates in a general scenario. The 1-year fixed rate on this policy at the time of writing this article was 3.80%.
  4. Bailout Provision: If the company lowers any rate below the Bailout Cap rate, you’ll have full access to withdraw your annuity’s accumulated value - free of any charges.

Your accumulated value (or account value) grows according to the indexing strategies you select. You can allocate a part of your premium to multiple strategies at the same time. For example, if you plan to invest $100,000 in a fixed-indexed annuity, you can even allocate $25,000 to four different strategies.

Among these indices, my preference leans towards strategies involving the S&P 500 and the iShares U.S. Real Estate Index, due to their historically proven performance and the relatively higher caps associated with these strategies. However, for those focused on accumulation, other MassMutual annuities, such as the American Landmark, offer even higher caps and participation rates, facilitating faster asset accumulation. The unique selling proposition (USP) of this annuity product is not its accumulation potential but rather its optional riders, which include lifetime income payments and enhanced death benefits. This will be discussed in detail in the next section of this review.

Surrender/Early Withdrawal Charge

Should your needs change unexpectedly, and you need to take an excess withdrawal (a withdrawal that is above the free withdrawal amount available in a given contract year), you may be entitled to access additional monies, although certain charges and penalties may apply. Any amount withdrawn in excess of the remaining free withdrawal amount is subject to a Surrender Charge. Below is the Surrender Charge schedule for the MassMutual Safe Return Fixed Indexed Annuity.

Completed Contract Years1234567891011+
Surrender Charge %10%9%8%7%6%5%4%3%2%1%0%

Market Value Adjustments - In case you need to surrender your policy, a Market Value Adjustment (MVA) will be applied to the portion of the withdrawal or surrender that exceeds the free withdrawal amount during the withdrawal charge period. The surrender charge schedule is different for the different tenures of annuities and also changes for some states.

The surrender charge of the MassMutual Safe Return Fixed Indexed Annuity is in line with other fixed-indexed annuity issuers.

Contract/Administrative Charge

The MassMutual Safe Return Fixed Indexed Annuity levies no annual contract or administrative fees.

Riders

The most critical aspect of this annuity to discuss involves the riders. The MassMutual Safe Return Fixed Indexed Annuity offers two optional paid riders:

IncomeSecure Rider: Provides Lifetime Income Payments that the annuitant cannot outlive.

Inheritance Enhancer Rider: Offers Enhanced Death Benefits.

Annuitants have the option to choose either of these riders according to their preferences.

IncomeSecure Rider

Before understanding the IncomeSecure Rider, let’s understand the Benefit Base Account (Income Base). When you purchase the IncomeSecure rider, a Benefit Base is set up for your annuity. Your rider’s Benefit Base is NOT the same as the annuity’s Accumulated Value (or Account Value). The Accumulated Value is available for withdrawal and is used to determine the Cash Surrender Value of your fixed-indexed annuity. On the other hand, think of the Benefit Base as a value that is used just to calculate your Lifetime Income Withdrawal amount. This value has no cash value or surrender value and cannot be withdrawn in a lump sum.

Growing the Benefit Base

The benefit base of a fixed-indexed annuity starts with your initial investment and grows through added rollup credits and a 6% bonus on all your initial investments. Every year for ten years, this benefit base gets a 6% boost (using simple interest) based on your initial investments and any bonuses. If you invest more money after the first year, the rollup credits for that additional amount will be adjusted accordingly. However, these rollup credits have a limit, which is 250% of your initial investments plus any bonuses. Starting from the first anniversary of adding the rider, and on any subsequent anniversaries, you can choose to adjust the benefit base to match the current account value if it's higher. This adjustment, or reset, allows the rollup process and credits to start over. You can only make this reset before you start receiving income from the annuity, and it might lead to higher yearly charges for the rider. Remember, you need to ask for this reset; it won't happen by itself.

Rider Income Payments If the client is 55 years old or older, they can start receiving payments from the annuity at any time they choose to. These payments are determined by the benefit base and the chosen payment option.

There are two payment options: payments for the life of a single person (single lifetime income) or payments for the lives of both the owner and their spouse (joint lifetime income). For payments to cover both the owner and their spouse, both must be at least 55 years old when the payments start.

The amount you receive each year is calculated by applying an income percentage to the benefit base. This percentage depends on the client's age, when they start receiving payments and which payment option they've chosen. Every year, the income percentage slightly increases by 0.10% until it maxes out at 7.5% for single-life payments and 6.5% for joint-life payments. Once the payments start, the income percentage is fixed and won't change.

The following table shows the maximum income percentage at different ages.

Age at Income Start DateSingle Lifetime IncomeJoint Lifetime Income
554.0%3.0%
604.5%3.5%
655.0%4.0%
665.1%4.1%
675.2%4.2%
685.3%4.3%
695.4%4.4%
705.5%4.5%
715.6%4.6%
725.7%4.7%
735.8%4.8%
745.9%4.9%
756.0%5.0%
806.5%5.5%
857.0%6.0%
90+7.5%6.5%

Suppose you choose a single lifetime income option at the age of 70, and by that time, your benefit base has increased to $300,000. A 5.5% income percentage then applies to you, making you eligible for a lifetime annual income of (5.5% × $300,000) = $16,500, which you will receive for life, even if your account value decreases to zero. However, it's crucial to understand that the account value should not be depleted to zero due to making excess withdrawals.

Income Rider Fees - Every year, a charge of 0.95% of the benefit base is applied at the end of the contract year, and this fee is taken from the account balance. If you decide to end the contract early or stop the rider, a part of this annual charge, adjusted for the time the rider was active, will be deducted. You have the option to cancel the rider whenever you want by sending a written request.

Inheritance Enhancer Rider

The Inheritance Enhancer Rider, an enhanced death benefit option, allows you to potentially leave your beneficiaries with an amount greater than the contract's value.

This optional rider is separate and distinct from your contract value and, if selected, provides steady and predictable growth toward your death benefit. Initially, your rider benefit base is equal to your Account value. Each year, your benefit base is increased by 9% of all purchase payments received in the first contract year for issue ages 50-75 and 6% for issue ages 76-85, including any applicable purchase payment bonuses. If you invest more money after the first year, the rollup credits for that additional amount will be adjusted accordingly. However, these rollup credits have a limit, which is 250% of your initial investments plus any bonuses. Starting from the first anniversary of adding the rider and on any subsequent anniversaries, you can choose to adjust the benefit base to match the current account value if it's higher. This adjustment, or reset, allows the rollup process and credits to start over. Remember, you need to ask for this reset; it won't happen by itself.

Death Benefit Options

After the fifth contract anniversary, the rider's death benefit supersedes the annuity contract's original death benefit. In simple terms, it means that the rider death benefit waiting period is 5 years. Beneficiaries can choose from one of the following two death benefit options:

  1. Lump Sum: This option allows beneficiaries to receive the basic death benefit, comprising the account value plus 50% of the difference between the account value and the benefit base amount.
  2. Annuitization: Beneficiaries choosing this option will receive the rider death benefit for life or a fixed period of at least five years. The benefit amount includes the account value plus the full difference between the account value and the benefit base amount. So, the proportion used in death benefit calculation is as follows:
Lump SumAnnuitization
50%100%

Effect of Withdrawal

Withdrawals can be made at any time from the contract, but they might affect the account value, rollup credits, and benefit base. Specifically, the benefit base decreases in proportion to any withdrawal made, except those for paying rider charges. Withdrawals within the free allowance reduce rollup credits for that year, but credits will accumulate again until the rollup period ends. However, withdrawals exceeding the free amount stop the accumulation of rollup credits.

Death Benefit Rider Fees - An annual rider charge of 1.15% is applied at the end of each contract year, calculated based on the benefit base and deducted from the account value. If the contract is surrendered or the rider is terminated, the charge will be prorated. A full refund of rider charges is provided if a death benefit is paid under the base contract due to the death of the 'Insured' within the first five years, or the death of a 'Non-Insured' joint owner at any time. The rider can be cancelled at any time upon written request by the client.

Terminal Illness, Nursing Home Waivers, and Guaranteed Minimum Surrender Value (GMSV)

As with most annuities, the MassMutual Safe Return has free in-built nursing home and terminal illness waivers.

Extended Care Waiver: After the first contract year, an annuitant can withdraw up to 100% of the contract’s accumulated value if he is confined to a Qualified nursing home for at least 90 consecutive days. No withdrawal charge or MVA applies if the owner qualifies for this benefit. Diagnosis must occur after the contract is issued, and written proof with supporting documentation is required from a qualified physician.

Terminal Illness Waiver: After the first contract year, an annuitant can withdraw up to 100% of the contract’s accumulated value if he is diagnosed with a terminal illness with a prognosis of 12 months or less. No withdrawal charge or MVA applies if the owner qualifies for this benefit. Diagnosis must occur after the contract is issued, and written proof with supporting documentation is required from a qualified physician.

Return of Premium Guarantee

As a benefit for the contract holder, this product includes a return of premium guarantee. The amount payable upon surrender, or when calculating annuity benefit payments or the death benefit, will be the highest of the surrender value, the guaranteed minimum surrender value, or the return of premium value. The return of premium value is calculated as the total of all purchase payments made, minus any previous net withdrawals and rider charges.

What makes this product stand out?

The MassMutual Safe Return Fixed Indexed Annuity offers a few features that make a favorable case for this annuity. The ones that I like the most are

  1. Useful rider options for annuitants looking for lifetime income or enhanced death benefits
  2. Free GMSV and Return of Premium Guarantee
  3. The plan offers the S&P Index with high cap rates
  4. No annual contract, mortality & expense, or administrative fees
  5. Free  confinement and terminal illness waiver benefit: This no-fee rider is automatically included for owners under age 65 and includes both an Extended Care and Terminal Illness Benefit
  6. Multiple Payout Options: Lumpsum or Annuitization option with Life Only, Life with Period Certain, Joint and Survivor Life, etc.

What I Don’t Like

This product is a decent product for people looking for growth and safety; still, there are some features that I believe could add more value for the annuitant.

Some of the features that I don’t like about the policy are

  1. Although the annuity offers good strategies on the S&P 500 Index, I don’t like the other indexes that the company offers for the interest crediting strategy. The other indexes that the company offers either have a volatility control mechanism that limits the index's overall return, or simply don’t have a good earning potential.
  2. The annual rider charge of 1.15% could have been somewhat lower.

Company Details

You must always keep in mind that, unlike CDs, annuities are not guaranteed by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) or any other federal insurance agency. An annuity's "guarantee" is only as strong as the insurance company that issues the annuity, so it is always important to assess the issuing company before buying an annuity.

MassMutual Life Insurance Company

MassMutual Ascend Life Insurance Company has been in the business since 1951. It has been one of the largest providers of fixed and fixed indexed annuities in the US for many years and has been regularly in the top ten Fixed Indexed Annuity Sales.

It is rated as follows by the rating agencies:

Rating AgencyRating
AM BestA++
S&PAA+
Fitch RatingsAA+
Moody's Investors ServiceAa3

MassMutual Ascend Life Insurance Company has managed to maintain decent ratings for many years. It is considered to be strong and stable financially. In 2022, the company paid out nearly $7 billion in claims. As of year-end 2022, some of the other financial highlights for MassMutual Ascend Life Insurance Company include its:

  • $39 billion in US sales / direct written premium
  • $34 billion of adjusted capital
  • $1.9 billion in policy owner dividends
  • $322 billion in life company assets

Thus, going by the operating history and financial numbers, we can safely gauge that you can trust your savings with MassMutual Life Insurance Company.

Conclusion

With the advancement in healthcare and technology, the average American today is living longer than ever. So, it’s very important to have a stream of income that can grow safely and steadily and have the ability to provide a guaranteed income during the retirement years. This not only helps you mitigate the risk of outliving your income but also ensures that you continue to live a decent life even in your retirement.

The MassMutual Safe Return is an annuity designed to grow your savings with reduced risk. It offers optional riders, allowing annuitants to choose between lifetime income or enhanced death benefits according to their needs. The Return of Premium guarantee is particularly appealing to conservative annuitants or those who may anticipate that they might surrender the annuity mid-term. If you're in the market for a Fixed Indexed Annuity optimized for lifetime income payments or enhanced death benefits, the MassMutual Safe Return Fixed Indexed Annuity might be worth considering.

We understand that choosing the right annuity can be a complex decision, influenced by a myriad of factors such as market conditions, individual financial goals, and evolving life circumstances. To better serve you in this critical decision-making process, we regularly conduct in-depth reviews of various annuity products, examining features, costs, and potential benefits. To delve deeper into our extensive reviews, click here.