ob·fus·cate ( b f -sk t , b-f s k t )tr.v. ob·fus·cat·ed, ob·fus·cat·ing, ob·fus·cates

1. To make so confused or opaque as to be difficult to perceive or understand: “A great effort was made . . . to obscure or obfuscate the truth” (Robert Conquest).

2. To render indistinct or dim; darken: The fog obfuscated the shore.

[Latin obfusc re, obfusc t-, to darken : ob-, over; see ob- + fusc re, to darken (from fuscus, dark).]

ob fus·ca tion n.

ob·fus ca·to ry ( b-f s k -tôr , -t r , b-) adj.1

Obfuscate is a wonderful word.  I just wish it didn’t apply so often to issues in personal finance.  Annuity contracts are one example.  Recently I met with a client who owned several annuity contracts and she wanted help translating them – from obfuscatory English to plain English. The contracts were thick documents that I’m convinced were carefully designed to keep anyone from actually wanting to read them.   Buried within were onerous sounding surrender charges, various subaccount fees and expenses, commissions, penalties, insurance fees, redemption fees, and enough other terms to make you nervous.  Wouldn’t it be nice if one of the insurance companies selling annuities would lay out the information in a simple diagram or a flow chart? It would make a lot more sense and it would help consumers evaluate and understand, for example, what the real cost of that death benefit is.

If you find yourself struggling to understand the costs, benefits, and tradeoffs of an investment, perhaps it’s due to a deliberate obfuscation of the information.  So what should you do?  If you don’t understand it, don’t buy it.  It’s that simple.

1. The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition copyright ©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2009. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

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