With legions of baby boomers set to retire in the next few years, mutual-fund companies are scrambling to find answers to a critical question...

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NEW YORK — With legions of baby boomers set to retire in the next few years, mutual-fund companies are scrambling to find answers to a critical question: What’s the best way for those newly freed from the work force to tap their retirement savings?

One answer increasingly is a category of funds known variously as managed income funds or managed payout funds. They’re designed to replace paychecks with regular distributions.

But as retirement can mean golf to one person and parachute jumping to another, there can be broad differences in how these funds operate. Soon-to-retire workers should make time to examine these funds before investing.

Feeling out the differences among such funds is a bigger assignment than it was only a few months ago. Since October, when Fidelity Investments introduced its Income Replacement Funds, other big name companies have followed. Russell Investments, Charles Schwab, TIAA-CREF and Vanguard have all set foot in this area.

Some funds, like a product from Fidelity, are designed to gradually draw down a sum of money by a certain date.

Others, like a fund from Vanguard, are designed to act more like a personal endowment, making payouts while striving to protect the principal. Among the funds, some aim to keep pace with inflation, while others try to add to capital.

“You certainly have to consider what type of distributions they’re promising and how they plan to go about delivering on those promises because they differ,” said Dan Culloton, senior mutual-fund analyst and editor of the Vanguard fund family report at Morningstar.

“You definitely have to look beyond the names to see if it really lines up with your own risk profile. What a fund company considers conservative may not be that conservative to you.”