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Life Insurance Tips
Life insurance is a contract between the policy owner and the insurer, where the insurer agrees to pay a sum of money upon the occurrence of the insured's death.
In return, the policyowner (or policy payor) agrees to pay a stipulated amount called a premium at regular intervals.
Last Updated -27th September 2006
Costs, insurability, and underwriting
- The insurer (the life insurance company) calculates the policy prices with an intent to recover claims to be paid and administrative costs, and to make a profit. The cost of insurance is determined using mortality tables calculated by actuaries. Actuaries are professionals who use actuarial science which is based in mathematics (primarily probability and statistics). Mortality tables are statistically based tables showing average life expectancies. The three main variables in a mortality table are age, gender, and use of tobacco. The mortality tables provide a baseline for the cost of insurance. In practice, these mortality tables are used in conjunction with the health and family history of the individual applying for a policy in order to determine premiums and insurability. The current mortality table being used by life insurance companies in the United States and their regulators was calculated during the 1980s. There is currently a measure being pushed to update the mortality tables by 2006.
- The current mortality table assumes that roughly 2 in 1,000 people aged 25 will die during the term of coverage. This number rises roughly quadratically to about 25 in 1,000 people for those aged 65. So in a group of one thousand 25 year old males with a $100,000 policy, a life insurance company would have to, at the minimum, collect $200 a year from each of the thousand people to cover the expected claims.
- The insurance company receives the premiums from the policy owner and invests them to create a pool of money from which to pay claims, and finance the insurance company's operations. Contrary to popular belief, the majority of the money that insurance companies make comes directly from premiums paid, as money gained through investment of premiums will never, in even the most ideal market conditions, vest enough money per year to pay out claims. Rates charged for life insurance increase with the insured's age because, statistically, people are more likely to die as they get older.
- Since adverse selection can have a negative impact on the financial results of the insurer, the insurer investigates each proposed insured (unless the policy is below a company-established minimum amount) beginning with the application, which becomes part of the policy. Group Insurance policies are an exception.
- This investigation and resulting evaluation of the risk is called underwriting. Health and lifestyle questions are asked, and the answers are dutifully recorded. Certain responses by the insured will be given further investigation. Life insurance companies in the United States support The Medical Information Bureau, which is a clearinghouse of medical information on all persons who have ever applied for life insurance. As part of the application, the insurer receives permission to obtain information from the proposed insured's physicians.
- Life insurance companies are never required by law to underwrite or to provide coverage on anyone. They alone determine insurability, and some people, for their own health or lifestyle reasons, are uninsurable. The policy can be declined (turned down) or rated. Rating means increasing the premiums to provide for additional risks relative to that particular insured.
- Many companies use four general health categories for those evaluated for a life insurance policy. These categories are Preferred Best, Preferred, Standard, and Tobacco. Preferred Best means that the proposed insured has no adverse medical history, is not under medication for any condition, and his family (immediate and extended) have no history of early cancer, diabetes, or other conditions. Preferred is like Preferred Best, but it allows that the proposed insured is currently under medication for the condition and may have some family history. Most people are in the Standard category. Profession, travel, and lifestyle also factor into not only which category the proposed insured falls, but also whether the proposed insured will be denied a policy. For example, a person who would otherwise be in the Preferred Best category will be denied a policy if he or she travels to a high risk country.
- Upon the death of the insured, the insurer will require acceptable proof of death before paying the claim. The normal minimum proof is a death certificate and the insurer's claim form completed, signed, and often notarized. If the insured's death was suspicious and the policy amount warrants it, the insurer may investigate the circumstances surrounding the death, before deciding whether there is a legal obligation to pay the claim.
- Proceeds from the policy may be paid in a lump sum or as an annuity paid over time in regular recurring payments for either for the life of a specified person or a specified time period.
Types of life insurance
Life insurance may be divided into two basic classes temporary and permanent.
- Temporary - This type of insurance is characterized by its defined time period that is named when the contract is initially put into force. In the case of annual renewable term (ART), this is not the case. This is due to the fact that coverage is provided for one year.
- Permanent - Permanent life insurance is life insurance that remains in force until the policy matures (pays out), unless the owner fails to pay the premium when due (the policy expires). The policy cannot be cancelled by the insurer for any reason except fraud in the application, and that cancellation must occur within a period of time defined by law (usually two years). Permanent insurance builds a cash value that reduces the amount at risk to the insurance company and thus the insurance expense over time. This means that a policy with a million dollars face value can be relatively inexpensive to a 70 year old because the actual amount of insurance purchased is much less than one million dollars. The owner can access the money in the cash value by withdrawing money, borrowing the cash value, or surrendering the policy and receiving the surrender value. The three basic types of permanent insurance are whole life, universal life, and endowment.
- Whole life coverage - Whole life insurance provides for a level premium, and a cash value table included in the policy guaranteed by the company. The primary advantages of whole life are guaranteed death benefits, guaranteed cash values, fixed and known annual premiums, and mortality and expense charges will not reduce the cash value shown in the policy. The primary disadvantages of whole life are premium inflexibility, and the internal rate of return in the policy may not be competitive with other savings alternatives. Riders are available that can allow one to increase the death benefit by paying additional premium. The death benefit can also be increased through the use of policy dividends. Premiums are much higher than term insurance in the short-term, but cumulative premiums are roughly equivalent if policies are kept in force until average life expectancy. Cash value can be accessed at any time through policy "loans". Since these loans decrease the death benefit if not paid back, payback is optional. Cash values are not paid to the beneficiary upon the death of the insured; the beneficiary receives the death benefit only.
- Universal life coverage - Universal life insurance (UL) is a relatively new insurance product intended to provide permanent insurance coverage with greater flexibility in premium payment and the potential for a higher internal rate of return. A universal life policy includes a cash account. Premiums increase the cash account. Interest is paid within the policy (credited) on the account at a rate specified by the company. This rate has a guaranteed minimum but usually is higher than that minimum. Mortality charges and administrative costs are charged against (reduce) the cash account. The surrender value of the policy is the amount remaining in the cash account less applicable surrender charges, if any.
- With all life insurance, there are basically two functions that make it work. There's a mortality function and a cash function. The mortality function would be the classical notion of pooling risk where the premiums paid by everybody else would cover the death benefit for the one or two who will die for a given period of time. The cash function inherent in all life insurance says that if a person is to reach age 95 to 100 (the age varies depending on state and company), then the policy matures and endows the face value of the policy.
- Actuarially, it is reasoned that out of a group of 1000 people, if even 10 of them live to age 95, then the mortality function alone will not be able to cover the cash function. So in order to cover the cash function, a minimum rate of investment return on the premiums will be required in the event that a policy matures.
- Universal life policies guarantees, to some extent, the death proceeds, but not the cash function - thus the flexible premiums and interest returns. If interest rates are high, then the dividends help reduce premiums. If interest rates are low, then the customer would have to pay additional premiums in order to keep the policy in force. When interest rates are above the minimum required, then the customer has the flexibility to pay less as investment returns cover the remainder to keep the policy in force.
- The universal life policy addresses the perceived disadvantages of whole life. Premiums are flexible. The internal rate of return is usually higher because it moves with the financial markets. Mortality costs and administrative charges are known. And cash value may be considered more easily attainable because the owner can discontinue premiums if the cash value allows it. And universal life has a more flexible death benefit because the owner can select one of two death benefit options, Option A and Option B.
- Option A pays the face amount at death as it's designed to have the cash value equal the death benefit at age 95. Option B pays the face amount plus the cash value, as it's designed to increase the net death benefit as cash values accumulate. Option B does carry with it a caveat. This caveat is that in order for the policy to keep its tax favored life insurance status, it must stay within a corridor specified by state and federal laws that prevent abuses such as attaching a million dollars in cash value to a two dollar insurance policy. The interesting part about this corridor is that for those people who can make it to age 95-100, this corridor requirement goes away and your cash value can equal exactly the face amount of insurance. If this corridor is ever violated, then the universal life policy will be treated as, and in effect turn into, a Modified Endowment Contract (or more commonly referred to as a MEC).
- But universal life has its own disadvantages which stem primarily from this flexibility. The policy lacks the fundamental guarantee that the policy will be in force unless sufficient premiums have been paid and cash values are not guaranteed.
- Universal life policies are sometimes erroneously referred to as self-sustaining policies. In the 1980s, when interest rates were high, the cash value accumulated at a more accelerated rate, and universal life coverage was often sold by agents as a policy that could be self-paying. Many policies did sustain themselves for a prolonged period, but the combination of lower interest rates and an increasing cost of insurance as the insured ages meant that for many policies, the cash option was diminished or depleted.
- Variable universal life Insurance (VUL) is not the same as universal life, even though they both have cash values attached to them. These differences are in how the cash accounts are managed; thus having a great effect on how they are treated for taxation.
- Limited-pay - Another type of permanent insurance is Limited-pay life insurance, in which all the premiums are paid over a specified period after which no additional premiums are due to keep the policy in force. The most common kind of limited pay is twenty-year limited pay. Another kind is paid-up when the insured is 65.
- Endowments - Endowments are policies which the cash value build up inside the policy, equals the death benefit (face amount) at a certain age. The age this commences is known as the endowment age. Endowments are considerably more expensive (in terms of annual premiums) than either whole life or universal life because the premium paying period is shortened and the endowment date is earlier.
- In the United States, the Technical Corrections Act of 1988 tightened the rules on tax shelters (creating modified endowments). These follow tax rules as annuities and IRAs do.
- Endowment Insurance is paid out whether the insured lives or dies, after a specific period (e.g. 15 years) or a specific age (e.g. 65).
- Accidental death - Accidental death is a limited life insurance that is designed to cover the insured when they pass away due to an accident. Accidents include anything from an injury, but do not typically cover any deaths resulting from health problems or suicide. Because they only cover accidents, these policies are much less expensive than other life insurances.
- It is also very commonly offered as "accidental death and dismemberment insurance", also known as an AD&D policy. In an AD&D policy, benefits are available not only for accidental death, but also for loss of limbs or bodily functions such as sight and hearing, etc.
- Accidental death and AD&D policies very rarely pay a benefit; either the cause of death is not covered, or the coverage is not maintained after the accident until death occurs. To be aware of what coverage they have, an insured should always review their policy for what it covers and what it excludes. Often, it does not cover an insured who puts themselves at risk in activities such as: parachuting, flying an airplane, professional sports, or involvement in a war (military or not).
- Accidental death benefits can also be added to a standard life insurance policy as a rider. If this rider is purchased, the policy will generally pay double the face amount if the insured dies due to an accident. This used to be commonly referred to as a "double indemnity" coverage.
Life Insurance Tips:
- Know what you need: The classic and best reason for an individual to buy life insurance is for protection against dying too soon. The person buying life insurance should be primarily concerned with seeing that his or her survivors do not face a financial handicap. There may be other reasons that apply: Life insurance is also purchased to pay estate taxes. Business relationships often require life insurance or can benefit from it, for example. Annuities offer a secure way for consumers to make sure they don't outlive their money. Beware of anyone who tries to sell you life insurance as an "investment." Life insurance should be purchased for the protection it will give you.
- Term life insurance: Most consumer advocates feel that term insurance is the best life insurance buy. Term is different from "whole life" or "ordinary life" in that you build up no equity, or cash value. In term, you pay each year for the cost of insurance, which typically increases annually as your chances of being alive the next year decline. Most term policies are renewable on an annual basis, and some have level premiums or a decreasing death benefit for a stated period -- one, five or ten years, or even to a specified age.
- Whole life insurance: Whole, or "ordinary," life insurance is usually sold with a level premium. In the early years of the policy, the annual premium will be higher than comparable term insurance. (But because its premiums are level, whole life's annual premiums may eventually be less than term.) Whole life policies build up a cash value that consumers can withdraw or borrow against. There are many variations of whole life. Premiums may be payable for a specified number of years on a limited-payment basis. Consumers also may have the option of a single premium paying all of the premiums at once with a single lump sum.
- Know the company you are buying from: You can check the financial stability of any life insurance company through several reputable national rating companies. Some ratings are available at public libraries. The Commissioner's staff can verify that a company is authorized to do business in Washington state, and you can also check here to see what kind of complaints have been filed by other consumers against a company. Information on ratings, complaints and licensing is available from Commissioner Kreidler's toll-free Hot Line at 1-800-562-6900.
- Accelerated benefits: Under rules adopted by Insurance Commissioner in 1994, authorized Washington life insurers can issue policies that include the possibility of accelerated benefits. Under these rules, a consumer suffering from a terminal illness can opt to receive discounted benefits prior to death.
- Shop around for rates: Life insurance is a competitive marketplace, and much of the competition focuses on price. Don't hesitate to seek premium quotes from several different companies.
- Shop for your own needs: If term insurance fits, that's what you should shop for. If you want to lower your premium at all costs, you may want to consider using a direct writer a company that cuts costs by operating without agents.
- Consider your own convenience, however: Do you want personal contact with an agent? Or if you buy an annuity, how fast can you get to your money in case of an emergency? If you are buying whole life, how fast does your money accumulate? What will the cash value be in one year? Three years? Ten years?
- Update your coverage as your circumstances change: Don't be misled by someone who tells you you should buy additional policies for children as they are born. Children rarely have an income and seldom require life insurance. But your situation may change dramatically from year to year. Review your net worth every few years and reconsider the prospects your survivors may face if you die.
- Don't let yourself get fast-talked into changes: Some life insurance policyholders in recent years have fallen victim to a practice called "twisting" or "churning." Churning occurs when your coverage is changed only to benefit the seller even though you may suffer a loss in the process. Churning often happens when people with cash-value policies are persuaded to convert their coverage to another policy, often one with a promise of better benefits. The problem is that the cash value of the original policy is raided in order to pay for the new policy. Luckless consumers may not realize until years later that the "higher" benefit policy is actually worth only a fraction of the value of the original policy.
- Never buy a policy you don't understand: If you are given illustrations or booklets, save that material with your policy. If your agent or company cannot explain the policy terms to your satisfaction, shop elsewhere. Make sure you understand the guarantees in your policy (not just the agent's promises of returns) and the surrender penalties if you choose to drop the policy at any time. These costs are often hidden in a life insurance or annuity policy.
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