Many financial experts consider life insurance to be the cornerstone of sound financial planning. It can be an important tool in the following situations:
- Replace income for dependents
If people depend on your income, life insurance can replace that income for them if you die. The most commonly recognized case of this is parents with young children. However, it can also apply to couples in which the survivor would be financially stricken by the income lost through the death of a partner, and to dependent adults, such as parents, siblings or adult children who continue to rely on you financially. Insurance to replace your income can be especially useful if the government- or employer-sponsored benefits of your surviving spouse or domestic partner will be reduced after your death.
- Pay final expenses
Life insurance can pay your funeral and burial costs, probate and other estate administration costs, debts and medical expenses not covered by health insurance.
- Create an inheritance for your heirs
Even if you have no other assets to pass to your heirs, you can create an inheritance by buying a life insurance policy and naming them as beneficiaries.
- Pay federal “death” taxes and state “death” taxes
Life insurance benefits can pay estate taxes so that your heirs will not have to liquidate other assets or take a smaller inheritance. Changes in the federal “death” tax rules between now and January 1, 2011 will likely lessen the impact of this tax on some people, but some states are offsetting those federal decreases with increases in their state-level “death” taxes.
- Make significant charitable contributions
By making a charity the beneficiary of your life insurance, you can make a much larger contribution than if you donated the cash equivalent of the policy’s premiums.
Create a source of savings
Some types of life insurance create a cash value that, if not paid out as a death benefit, can be borrowed or withdrawn on the owner’s request. Since most people make paying their life insurance policy premiums a high priority, buying a cash-value type policy can create a kind of “forced” savings plan. Furthermore, the interest credited is tax deferred (and tax exempt if the money is paid as a death claim).
In most cases, if you have no dependents and have enough money to pay your final expenses, you don’t need any life insurance.
If you want to create an inheritance or make a charitable contribution, buy enough life insurance to achieve those goals.
If you have dependents, buy enough life insurance so that, when combined with other sources of income, it will replace the income you now generate for them, plus enough to offset any additional expenses they will incur to replace services you provide (for a simple example, if you do your own taxes, the survivors might have to hire a professional tax preparer). Also, your family might need extra money to make some changes after you die. For example, they may want to relocate, or your spouse may need to go back to school to be in a better position to help support the family.
You should also plan to replace “hidden income” that would be lost at death. Hidden income is income that you receive through your employment but that isn’t part of your gross wages. It includes things like your employer’s subsidy of your health insurance premium, the matching contribution to your 401(k) plan, and many other “perks,” large and small. This is an often-overlooked insurance need: the cost of replacing just your health insurance and retirement contributions could be the equivalent of $2,000 per month or more.
Of course, you should also plan for expenses that arise at death. These include the funeral costs, taxes and administrative costs associated with “winding up” an estate and passing property to heirs. At a minimum, plan for $15,000.
Other sources of income
Most families have some sources of post-death income besides life insurance. The most common source is Social Security survivors’ benefits.
Social Security survivors’ benefits can be substantial. For example, for a 35-year-old person who was earning a $36,000 salary at death, maximum Social Security survivors’ monthly income benefits for a spouse and two children under age 18 could be about $2,400 per month, and this amount would increase each year to match inflation. (It drops slightly when the survivors are a spouse and one child under 18, and stops completely when there are no children under 18. Also, the surviving spouse’s benefit would be reduced if he or she earns income over a certain limit.)
Many also have life insurance through an employer plan, and some from another affiliation, such as through an association they belong to or a credit card. If you have a vested pension benefit, it might have a death component. Although these sources might provide a lot of income, they rarely provide enough. And it probably isn’t wise to count on death benefits that are connected with a particular job, since you might die after switching to a different job, or while you are unemployed.
A multiple of salary?
Many pundits recommend buying life insurance equal to a multiple of your salary. For example, one financial advice columnist recommends buying insurance equal to 20 times your salary before taxes. She chose 20 because, if the benefit is invested in bonds that pay 5 percent interest, it would produce an amount equal to your salary at death, so the survivors could live off the interest and wouldn’t have to “invade” the principal.
However, this simplistic formula implicitly assumes no inflation and assumes that one could assemble a bond portfolio that, after expenses, would provide a 5 percent interest stream every year. But assuming inflation is 3 percent per year, the purchasing power of a gross income of $50,000 would drop to about $38,300 in the 10th year. To avoid this income drop-off, the survivors would have to “invade” the principal each year. And if they did, they would run out of money in the 16th year.
The “multiple of salary” approach also ignores other sources of income, such as those mentioned previously.
A simple example
Suppose a surviving spouse didn’t work and had two children, ages 4 and 1, in her care. Suppose her deceased husband earned $36,000 at death and was covered by Social Security but had no other death benefits or life insurance. Assume the surviving spouse is 36.
Assume that the deceased spent $6,000 from income on his own living expenses and the cost of working. Assume, for simplicity, that the deceased performed services for the family (such as property maintenance, income tax and other financial management, and occasional child care) for which the survivors will need to pay $6,000 per year. Assume that the survivors will have to buy health insurance to replace the coverage the deceased had at work, and that this will cost $12,000 per year.
Taken together, the survivors will need to replace the equivalent of $48,000 of income, adjusted each year for an assumed 4 percent inflation.
Thanks to Social Security, the survivors would need life insurance to replace only about $1,700 per month of lost wage income (adjusted for inflation) for 14 years until the older child reaches 18; Social Security would provide the rest. The survivors would need life insurance to replace about $2,100 per month (adjusted for inflation) for three more years when the non-working surviving spouse has only one child under 18 in her care.
The life insurance amount needed today to provide the $1,700 and $2,100 monthly amounts is roughly $360,000. Adding $15,000 for funeral and other final expenses brings the minimum life insurance needed for the example to $375,000.
What’s left out?
The example leaves out some potentially significant unmet financial needs, such as
- The surviving spouse will have no income from Social Security from age 53 until 60 unless the deceased buys additional life insurance to cover this period. It could be assumed that the surviving spouse will obtain a job at or before this time, but she could also become disabled or otherwise unable to work. If life insurance were bought for this period, the additional amount of insurance needed would be about $335,000.
- Some people like to plan to use life insurance to pay off the home mortgage at the primary income earner’s death, so that the survivors are less likely to face the threat of losing their home. If life insurance were bought for this goal, the additional amount of insurance needed is the amount of the unpaid balance on the mortgage.
- Some people like to provide money to pay to send their children to college out of their life insurance. We may assume that each child will attend a public college for four years and will need $15,000 per year. However, college costs have been rising faster than inflation for many decades, and this trend is unlikely to slow down. If life insurance were bought for this goal, the additional amount of insurance needed would be about $200,000.
In the example, no money is planned for the surviving spouse’s retirement, except for what the spouse would be entitled to receive from Social Security (about $1,200 per month). It could be assumed that the surviving spouse will obtain a job and will either participate in an employer’s retirement plan or save with an IRA, but she could also become disabled or otherwise unable to work. If life insurance were bought to provide the equivalent of $4000 per month starting at age 60 until 65 and $3,000 per month from 65 on (because at 65 Medicare will make carrying private health insurance unnecessary), the additional amount of insurance needed would be about $465,000.
There are two major types of life insurance—term and whole life. Whole life is sometimes called permanent life insurance, and it encompasses several subcategories, including traditional whole life, universal life, variable life and variable universal life. In 2003, about 6.4 million individual life insurance policies bought were term and about 7.1 million were whole life.
Life insurance products for groups are different from life insurance sold to individuals. The information below focuses on life insurance sold to individuals.
Term Insurance is the simplest form of life insurance. It pays only if death occurs during the term of the policy, which is usually from one to 30 years. Most term policies have no other benefit provisions.
There are two basic types of term life insurance policies—level term and decreasing term.
- Level term means that the death benefit stays the same throughout the duration of the policy.
- Decreasing term means that the death benefit drops, usually in one-year increments, over the course of the policy’s term.
In 2003, virtually all (97 percent) of the term life insurance bought was level term.
For more on the different types of term life insurance
Whole life or permanent insurance pays a death benefit whenever you die—even if you live to 100! There are three major types of whole life or permanent life insurance—traditional whole life, universal life, and variable universal life, and there are variations within each type.
In the case of traditional whole life, both the death benefit and the premium are designed to stay the same (level) throughout the life of the policy. The cost per $1,000 of benefit increases as the insured person ages, and it obviously gets very high when the insured lives to 80 and beyond. The insurance company could charge a premium that increases each year, but that would make it very hard for most people to afford life insurance at advanced ages. So the company keeps the premium level by charging a premium that, in the early years, is higher than what’s needed to pay claims, investing that money, and then using it to supplement the level premium to help pay the cost of life insurance for older people.
By law, when these “overpayments” reach a certain amount, they must be available to the policyowner as a cash value if he or she decides not to continue with the original plan. The cash value is an alternative, not an additional, benefit under the policy.
In the 1970s and 1980s, life insurance companies introduced two variations on the traditional whole life product—universal life insurance and variable universal life insurance.
You should consider term life insurance if:
- You need life insurance for a specific period of time. Term life insurance enables you to match the length of the term policy to the length of the need. For example, if you have young children and want to ensure that there will be funds to pay for their college education, you might buy 20-year term life insurance. Or if you want the insurance to repay a debt that will be paid off in a specified time period, buy a term policy for that period.
- You need a large amount of life insurance, but have a limited budget. In general, this type of insurance pays only if you die during the term of the policy, so the rate per thousand of death benefit is lower than for permanent forms of life insurance. If you are still alive at the end of the term, coverage stops unless the policy is renewed. Unlike permanent insurance, you will not build equity in the form of cash savings.
If you think your financial needs may change, you may also want to look into “convertible” term policies. These allow you to convert to permanent insurance without a medical examination in exchange for higher premiums.
Keep in mind that premiums are lowest when you are young and increase upon renewal as you age. Some term insurance policies can be renewed when the policy ends, but the premium will generally increase. Some policies require a medical examination at renewal to qualify for the lowest rates.
You should consider permanent life insurance if:
- You need life insurance for as long as you live. A permanent policy pays a death benefit whether you die tomorrow or live to be 100.
- You want to accumulate a savings element that will grow on a tax-deferred basis and could be a source of borrowed funds for a variety of purposes. The savings element can be used to pay premiums to keep the life insurance in force if you can’t pay them otherwise, or it can be used for any other purpose you choose. You can borrow these funds even if your credit is shaky. The death benefit is collateral for the loan, and if you die before it’s repaid, the insurance company collects what is due the company before determining what’s goes to your beneficiary.
Keep in mind that premiums for permanent policies are generally higher than for term insurance. However, the premium in a permanent policy remains the same no matter how old you are, while term can go up substantially every time you renew it.
There are a number of different types of permanent insurance policies, such as whole (ordinary) life, universal life, variable life, and variable/universal life.
A permanent life policy provides lifelong insurance protection. The policy pays a death benefit if you die tomorrow or if you live to be a hundred. There is also a savings element that will grow on a tax-deferred basis and may become substantial over time. Because of the savings element, premiums are generally higher for permanent than for term insurance. However, the premium in a permanent policy remains the same, while term can go up substantially every time you renew it.
There are a number of different types of permanent insurance policies, such as whole (ordinary) life, universal life, variable life, and variable/universal life. In a permanent policy, the cash value is different from its face value amount. The face amount is the money that will be paid at death. Cash value is the amount of money available to you. There are a number of ways that you can use this cash savings. For instance, you can take a loan against it or you can surrender the policy before you die to collect the accumulated savings.
There are unique features to a permanent policy such as:
- You can lock in premiums when you purchase the policy. By purchasing a permanent policy, the premium will not increase as you age or if your health status changes.
- The policy will accumulate cash savings.
Depending on the policy, you may be able to withdraw some of the money. You also may have these options:
- Use the cash value to pay premiums. If unexpected expenses occur, you can stop or reduce your premiums. The cash value in the policy can be used toward the premium payment to continue your current insurance protection – providing there is enough money accumulated.
Borrow from the insurance company using the cash value in your life insurance as collateral. Like all loans, you will ultimately need to repay the insurer with interest. Otherwise, the policy may lapse or your beneficiaries will receive a reduced death benefit. However, unlike loans from most financial institutions, the loan is not dependent on credit checks or other restrictions.
Term insurance comes in two basic varieties—level term and decreasing term. These days, almost everyone buys level term insurance. The terms “level” and “decreasing” refer to the death benefit amount during the term of the policy. A level term policy pays the same benefit amount if death occurs at any point during the term.
Common types of level term are:
- yearly- (or annually-) renewable term
- 5-year renewable term
- 10-year term
- 15-year term
- 20-year term
- 25-year term
- 30-year term
- term to a specified age (usually 65)
Yearly renewable term, once popular, is no longer a top seller. The most popular type is now 20-year term. Most companies will not sell term insurance to an applicant for a term that ends past his or her 80th birthday.
If a policy is “renewable,” that means it continues in force for an additional term or terms, up to a specified age, even if the health of the insured (or other factors) would cause him or her to be rejected if he or she applied for a new life insurance policy.
Generally, the premium for the policy is based on the insured person’s age and health at the policy’s start, and the premium remains the same (level) for the length of the term. So, premiums for 5-year renewable term can be level for 5 years, then to a new rate reflecting the new age of the insured, and so on every five years. Some longer term policies will guarantee that the premium will not increase during the term; others don’t make that guarantee, enabling the insurance company to raise the rate during the policy’s term.
Some term policies are convertible. This means that the policy’s owner has the right to change it into a permanent type of life insurance without additional evidence of insurability.
“Return of Premium”
In most types of term insurance, including homeowners and auto insurance, if you haven’t had a claim under the policy by the time it expires, you get no refund of the premium. Your premium bought the protection that you had but didn’t need, and you’ve received fair value. Some term life insurance consumers have been unhappy at this outcome, so some insurers have created term life with a “return of premium” feature. The premiums for the insurance with this feature are often significantly higher than for policies without it, and they generally require that you keep the policy in force to its term or else you forfeit the return of premium benefit. Some policies will return the base premium but not the extra premium (for the return benefit), and others will return both.
- Whole or ordinary life
This is the most common type of permanent insurance policy. It offers a death benefit along with a savings account. If you pick this type of life insurance policy, you are agreeing to pay a certain amount in premiums on a regular basis for a specific death benefit. The savings element would grow based on dividends the company pays to you.
- Universal or adjustable life
This type of policy offers you more flexibility than whole life insurance. You may be able to increase the death benefit, if you pass a medical examination. The savings vehicle (called a cash value account) generally earns a money market rate of interest. After money has accumulated in your account, you will also have the option of altering your premium payments – providing there is enough money in your account to cover the costs. This can be a useful feature if your economic situation has suddenly changed. However, you would need to keep in mind that if you stop or reduce your premiums and the saving accumulation gets used up, the policy might lapse and your life insurance coverage will end. You should check with your agent before deciding not to make premium payments for extended periods because you might not have enough cash value to pay the monthly charges to prevent a policy lapse.
- Variable life
This policy combines death protection with a savings account that you can invest in stocks, bonds and money market mutual funds. The value of your policy may grow more quickly, but you also have more risk. If your investments do not perform well, your cash value and death benefit may decrease. Some policies, however, guarantee that your death benefit will not fall below a minimum level.
- Variable-universal life
If you purchase this type of policy, you get the features of variable and universal life policies. You have the investment risks and rewards characteristic of variable life insurance, coupled with the ability to adjust your premiums and death benefit that is characteristic of universal life insurance.
Roughly 1,000 life insurance companies sell life insurance in the U.S., but many are members of groups of companies and so aren’t really competitors with each other. Having separate companies enables a group to offer its products through separate distribution channels, to more efficiently meet the regulatory requirements of particular states, or to achieve other organizational goals. There are an estimated three hundred company groups.
Moreover, not every group has a company licensed to operate in each state. As a general rule, you should buy from a company licensed in your state, because then can you rely on your state insurance department to help if there’s a problem. And if the insurance company becomes insolvent, your state’s life insurance guaranty fund will help only policyholders of companies it has licensed.
There are several other points to keep in mind when selecting a life insurance company:
- Product – most, but not all, companies offer a broad range of policies and features, so choose a company that offers the product and features that meet your needs.
- Identity – life insurance company names can be confusing, and different companies can have similar names. Life insurance company names often use words that suggest financial strength (such as Guaranty, Reserve, or Security), financial sophistication (such as Bankers, Financial, or Investors), maturity (such as First, Pioneer, or Old), dependability (such as Assurance, Reliable, Trust), fairness (such as Beneficial, Equitable, or Peoples), breadth of operations (such as Continental, National, or International), government (such as American, Capital, or Republic), or well-known and respected Americans (such as Jefferson, Franklin, or Lincoln). Be sure you know the full name, home office location, and affiliation (if any) of any company you are considering (for an example, click here).
- Financial Solidity – life insurance is a long-term arrangement. There is no guarantee for life insurance policyholders similar to that provided for bank accounts by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). Select a company that is likely to be financially sound for many years. Some life insurance companies subscribe to the principles and codes of conduct of the Insurance Marketplace Standards Association, a nonprofit organization that promotes ethical conduct in life insurance marketing.
- Advice and service – for many people, life insurance is a strange, complex product, so that it helps to deal with a representative with whom you can communicate and who is attentive to your needs. This might be connected to the selection of a life insurance company because some agents represent only one or a very few life insurance companies.
- Claims – you may want to check a national claims database to see what complaint information it has on a company. Also, your state insurance department will be able to tell you if the insurance company you are considering doing business with had many consumer complaints about its service relative to the number of policies it sold.
Premium and cost – The premium is the amount you pay the company for the life insurance contract with all of its benefits. Even for a given death benefit and type of insurance (e.g., term life), the premium can vary widely among companies, either because some companies’ policies have features that others don’t, or because some charge more than others for the same coverage. So the first step in comparing policies is to make sure you compare similar insurance plans, based on
-The type of policy and policy features
-The amount of insurance you are purchasing
The premium for the policy isn’t the same as the cost of the protection portion of the policy. One policy might have a higher premium but also offer more benefits (for example, it might pay policy dividends) than another. Or both might promise dividends, but in different amounts at different points in time. In each case, the higher-premium policy might have a lower cost of protection. How can you tell what a policy’s cost is? Companies should tell you a policy’s Net Payment Cost Index and its Surrender Cost Index. Use the Surrender Cost Index if you’re thinking of keeping the insurance only for a specific period of time; use the Net Payment Cost Index if you expect to keep the policy indefinitely. Generally, the lower the cost index, the better.
How can I assess the financial strength of an insurance company?
Five independent agencies—A.M. Best, Fitch, Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s, and Weiss—rate the financial strength of insurance companies. Each has its own rating scale, its own rating standards, its own population of rated companies, and its own distribution of companies across its scale. Each agency uses numbers or plusses and minuses to indicate minor variations in rating from another rating class.
The agencies disagree often enough so that you should consider a company’s rating from two or more agencies before judging whether to buy or keep a policy from that company. Moreover, agencies will announce changes of ratings on any day. It’s probably prudent to check annually on the ratings of any company you’re interested in.
Some points for using the ratings:
- Don’t rely only on what the insurance companies say about their ratings from these agencies. Companies are likely to highlight a higher rating from one agency and ignore a lower one from another agency, or to select the most favorable comments from a rating agency’s report.
- To use the ratings from more than one independent agency, you need to understand that each agency’s rating code is different from the others. For example, an A+ from A.M. Best is the next-to-top rating of its 15 categories, but an A+ from Fitch or S&P is their 5th-highest rating (out of 24 categories for Fitch, and out of 19 categories for S&P). Moreover, Moody’s doesn’t have an A+ rating.
However, the ratings can be classified into “secure” and “vulnerable” mega-categories. Here, as of August 2005, are the rating scales for each of the “secure” rating classes, and all the “vulnerable” classes combined (source, except for Weiss: The Insurance Forum, September 2005 issue).
|B and lower||Vulnerable||66||6.8|
|BB+ and lower||Vulnerable||6||1.4|
|Ba1 and lower||Vulnerable||15||4.7|
|S & P||AAA||Extremely strong||30||4.6|
|BB+ and lower||Vulnerable||80||12.2|
|D+ and lower||Vulnerable||272**||28|
|*2004 figures; updated information not available
**As of March 25, 2003
Ratings Agency Contact Information
All of the ratings agencies can be found on the Web, or reached by phone.
|A.M. Best Company, Inc||www.ambest.com||Ambest Rd.
Oldwick, NJ 08858
|Fitch Ratings||www.fitchibca.com||1 State Street Plaza
New York, NY 10004
|Moody’s Investor Services*||www.moodys.com||99 Church Street New York, NY 10007||212-553-0300|
|Standard & Poor’s Insurance Ratings Services*||www2.standardandpoors.com||55 Water Street
New York, NY 10004
|Weiss Research**||www.weissratings.com||15430 Endeavor Drive
Jupiter, FL 33478
|*To use these Web sites, you have to register, but it’s free.
**Weiss charges $14.99 for each rating. However, its public Web site lists the ten highest and ten lowest ranked companies, and the companies themselves might reveal their Weiss rating.