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Annuities can be a place to stockpile money tax-deferred, or a source of income guaranteed for a lifetime; a CD-like, fixed-rate investment, or a portfolio of stock and bond mutual funds; a parking place for a lump sum, or a way to build financial security $100 at a time.

Behind every annuity there's an insurance company, but calling an insurance agent isn't the only way to buy one.

You can also shop through your financial planner, stockbroker or, increasingly, your bank.

To get a feel for what you can expect, Kiplinger's shopped three banks, four insurers and three brokerages for deferred annuities (those used for saving).

Conclusion: In many cases, you find out what you need to know only if you ask the right questions.

And you can't expect much guidance on what to buy -- or even on whether annuities are appropriate for you in the first place.

Just four of the 10 salespeople -- Fidelity and Merrill Lynch brokers, a Nations-Securities representative and a Lincoln National insurance agent -- probed to find out whether an annuity was a suitable investment. All four made sure it was the caller's intent to save long-term for retirement.

Fidelity, Lincoln National and Merrill Lynch were also the only three to volunteer that annuities have both Internal Revenue Service penalties for withdrawing before age 59 1/2 and surrender penalties that last five to seven years.

Others made those disclosures when asked, but the PaineWebber and Citibank representatives failed to mention the IRS penalty.

All were prepared to send prospectuses, however, that do make these disclosures in full.

The insurance companies contacted (two captive agents, one independent and USAA, which sells direct) each had just one line of products to sell. Ditto for Fidelity.

Other brokerages and banks offered products with several insurers, but some recommended just one until pressed for alternatives.

The Citibank rep recommended a fixed-rate annuity from Nationwide paying 6.1 percent with a seven-year surrender penalty. Only when asked, "Is that all?" did he mention one from International Life Investors paying 6.45 percent with a penalty of just five years.

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