debt

Want settlement cash now? Not so fast!

Man counting money © Sergey Mironov/Shutterstock.com

During the recession, many people were searching for cash and liquidity to stay afloat. Even as the economy improves, there are those who have a need for money and will turn to some unusual places to get it.

Selling annuities, structured settlements, scheduled lottery payoffs or other ongoing payments for cash became more popular during the recession. But for those still feeling a cash crunch, this tactic is seen as a potential option.

Unless the financial predicaments are dire, most financial advisers recommend against cashing in annuities or structured settlements. Selling off an annuity can trigger surrender charges as high as 10 percent, and those who sell before age 59 1/2 can also face federal taxes and penalties. Structured settlements are attractive because they generally provide tax-free income for life.

Yet, sometimes cashing in is the only option. That $500 monthly payment from an old accident may have helped with medical bills early on, but if the beneficiary lost his job and fell behind on some bills or had to make significant costly repairs to his home, a lump-sum payout of $50,000 may seem quite enticing.

Downsides of cashing in your settlement

  • Selling off an annuity can cost surrender charges of up to 10 percent.
  • Selling before age 59 1/2 can trigger federal taxes and penalties.

Americans have a great deal of money tied up in structured settlements and annuities, with a little less than $6 billion worth of new structured settlements written each year, according to the National Structured Settlements Trade Association. At the end of 2013, there were also 34.8 million individual deferred annuity contracts in place exceeding $2.58 trillion, according to LIMRA Secure Retirement Institute, a nonprofit research trade association for the financial services industry.

It's my money, and I want it now!

J.G. Wentworth is one of the world's largest buyers of structured-settlement payments and annuities. It handled more than $2 billion in payment transfers between 1994 and 2009.

In 2009, then-chief marketing officer Ken Murray said that the company had seen a steady increase in customer inquiries following the economic downturn. Despite what was happening in the economy, there were always people looking to sell annuities, structured settlements and lottery winnings, Murray said. Due to the nature of the business, buyers of payments usually see customers when they are in some sort of financial predicament.

"Historically, the common denominator is people who need cash, but there are some new reasons we are hearing more frequently than others as a result of the recession. It might be the fact that they lost their job or their mortgage payments have increased," said Murray.

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