It's ironic.

Insurance is supposed to make you feel safe. Whether you buy life insurance, annuities, disability, or long-term-care insurance, the idea is to remove the threat of some nasty surprise hurting you or your family at some point in the future.

Yet, with crises erupting everywhere in the financial system, people are now asking themselves if they can count on an insurance company to be there for them when they need it.

The risks surfaced recently as old stalwarts in the insurance industry began to seek TARP money - the government money from the Troubled Asset Relief Program. That money was set up by the U.S. Treasury to rescue banks, but insurance companies such as the Hartford Financial Services Group Inc. seemed so determined to get some they began considering bank acquisitions.

Still, with the U.S. government stating that it would provide $22 billion to insurance companies, many insurers rushed to say "no thank you." Clearly, companies do not want to send any signal of distress.

"An insurance company can't say it is having difficulty because it could mean their death," said Beverly Hills, Calif., financial planner Glen Janken.

Feeling the pain

There is no secret that most players in the industry are feeling some pain. They have lost money in investments in stocks, bonds, real estate, and other assets that back the policies they offer. Many have made commitments they must fulfill regardless of the success of their investments. Among the troubling commitments: guaranteed payments on variable annuities.

Despite the weakness, Janken and other financial advisers are cautioning people that dumping a policy and adding another can mean tax consequences and high fees.

For example, some insurance products carry cancellation fees or surrender charges, which might total 8 percent of the assets if an individual unloads it within the first few years of the purchase.

In fact, the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, an organization of state government insurance regulators, has issued an alert to consumers to beware of insurance agents or financial planners suggesting that people liquidate an annuity or life insurance policy and buy another. It warns people not to feel pressured into any immediate decision.

Reacting in fear

"I worry about consumers reacting in fear," said Peter Katt, a Mattawan, Mich., fee-only insurance adviser. "They head to an agent, and he uses their fear as an excuse to sell something else and get a commission."

Concerns are real, Katt said. But individuals may imagine greater risks than truly exist. For example, although American International Group Inc. is in serious financial trouble, the life and annuity products the company has sold are insulated from corporate problems.

Even if a risky insurance company fails, there is some protection. States have life and health insurance guarantee associations. If an insurer becomes insolvent and cannot pay clients, the association provides money to individuals within maximum limits that vary by state. They range from about $300,000 on life insurance death benefits to $100,000 for annuities and health insurance policies.

Although people within the limits can relax, financial planners say choices are more difficult for clients that exceed the maximums. Besides weighing the effect of fees and penalties, they must realize that if they try to buy new life, disability, or long-term-care insurance at an older age, the costs could be a lot higher.

Decisions are easiest for people buying new insurance. Financial planners say stick with top-rated companies by checking ratings from A.M. Best Co., Moody's, Standard & Poor's, and Fitch Ratings Inc.

Gail MarksJarvis is a personal-finance columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Contact her at gmarksjarvis@tribune.com.