How to evaluate insurers for pension risk transfers

Ian Cahill

Posted on June 02, 2021

Head of Pension Risk Transfer for Institutional Solutions at Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co. (MassMutual).
Modern, almost abstract, cityscape

When a company transfers its pension obligations to a life insurer, the insurance company evaluates the pension plan from many angles. An insurer will ultimately price the transfer based on a myriad of criteria such as the makeup of the employee and retiree populations, the quality of assets within the pension plan, the accuracy and completeness of the participant data, and other measures.

Yet, one of the most important evaluations that needs to be conducted is the due diligence by the sponsor of the pension plan on the selection of the life insurer. The selection of an insurer for a pension transfer is a fiduciary act and with it comes specific responsibilities.

Department of Labor Interpretive Bulletin 95-1 (DOL 95-1) requires plan sponsors "to obtain the safest annuity available” unless, under the circumstances, it would be in the interest of participants and beneficiaries to do otherwise.

A fiduciary must evaluate a number of factors relating to a potential annuity provider's claims-paying ability and creditworthiness. Reliance solely on ratings provided by insurance rating agencies would not be sufficient to meet this requirement. MassMutual, in a recent white paper, “Key Considerations for De-risking Your Pension Plan,” outlines how plan sponsors may choose to evaluate insurers to determine the best choice for a pension risk transfer (PRT) based on specific facts of the plan.1

Selecting the ‘safest’ annuity provider

In selecting the “safest” annuity provider for the purpose of distributing pension benefits, plan sponsors should keep the following in mind:

  • Transferring pension assets to an insurer is a transfer of liability and is therefore a fiduciary act. That means the plan sponsor must act in the best interest of plan participants.
  • The sponsor must act for the exclusive purpose of providing benefits to the participants and beneficiaries. While the defraying of plan administration expenses can be considered, the sponsor, as a fiduciary, must act with “care, skill, prudence and diligence under the prevailing circumstances that a prudent person acting in a like capacity and familiar with such matters would use.”2
  • Sponsors are required to conduct an objective and thorough search for an annuity provider.

The search for a provider or insurer must evaluate factors relating to a potential annuity provider's claims paying ability and creditworthiness.

  • Quality and diversification of the annuity provider's investment portfolio.
  • Size of the insurer relative to the proposed contract.
  • Level of the insurer's capital and surplus.
  • Lines of business of the annuity provider and other indications of an insurer's exposure to liability.
  • Structure of the annuity contract and guarantees supporting the annuities, such as the use of separate accounts.
  • Availability of additional protection through state guaranty associations and the extent of their guarantees.
  • Use of a qualified, independent expert or consultant is recommended.

In a case where one annuity provider is only marginally safer than another, sponsors can take other factors into account. But, there are other considerations when selecting a sound insurer for the purpose of a PRT.

Sponsors should assess the insurers’ experience in managing not just PRT but in administering pension payments and serving the annuitants. Ultimately, the insurer will be handling all payments and administration and will become the primary contact for retirees, pre-retirees and beneficiaries. Choosing an experienced, capable administrator will ultimately help keep pension participants satisfied.

Ultimately, sponsors need to work closely with their pension consultant who has established consultative relationships with insurers. During the due diligence process, a thorough evaluation of the insurer’s view on the risks associated with PRTs and ultimately assess its relative viability, and gain confidence that the insurer can delivery on the promises made to the plan participants for decades to come

At MassMutual, we offer plan sponsors and intermediaries confidence in helping ensure their fiduciary duties and pension obligations are satisfied and annuitants will be served with care. As a mutual company run for the benefit of its participating policyholders, we offer confidence through our enduring financial strength, our annuity solutions expertise, and our passion for helping people secure their future and protect the ones they love.

If you’d like to learn more about MassMutual’s pension risk transfer capabilities, please contact us or talk to your pension consultant.


Keith McDonagh is Head of the Institutional Solutions businesses for Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co. (MassMutual), which includes Institutional Insurance, Institutional Longevity, Defined Benefit, Institutional Investments, Stable Value, Medium Term Notes and Guaranteed Investment Contracts.

This article was originally published in October 2018. It has been updated.

1 MassMutual, “Key Considerations for De-risking Your Pension Plan,” September 2019.

2 Code of Federal Regulations, Title 29 – Labor, July 1, 2016 (most current information available)

The information provided is not written or intended as specific tax or legal advice. MassMutual, its employees and representatives are not authorized to give tax or legal advice. You are encouraged to seek advice from your own tax or legal counsel. Opinions expressed by those interviewed are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company.