LIFE INSURANCE BASICS
Why should I buy life insurance?
Many financial experts consider life insurance to be the cornerstone of sound financial planning. It can be an important tool in the following situations:
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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Some types of life insurance create a cash value that, if not paid out as a death benefit, can be borrowed or withdrawn on the owner’s request.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).
HOW MUCH LIFE INSURANCE DO I NEED?
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.
WHAT ARE THE PRINCIPAL TYPES OF LIFE INSURANCE?
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.
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 policyholder 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.
HOW IS LIFE INSURANCE SOLD?
You can buy life insurance either as an “individual” or as part of a “group” plan.
When you buy an individual policy, you choose the company, the plan, and the benefits and features that are right for you and your family. You might be able to buy the policy from the same agent or company representative who sells you property and liability insurance for your home, auto or business. And although you won’t qualify for any discounts by buying your life insurance and other insurance from the same representative, working with a single advisor for all your insurance needs can make your financial life simpler.
Individual policies are typically sold through insurance agents or brokers. If you buy a policy through an agent or broker, you will pay a commission, also called a “load,” that is built into the premium rate. The commission compensates the agent or broker for the time spent advising you on how much and what type of life insurance to buy, for facilitating the application process, and for any further service that’s needed in future years to keep the policy up-to-date (such as changing beneficiary designations, arranging policy loans or coordinating your financial plans with your lawyer and accountant).
There are two other ways to buy individual life insurance. In Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York, you can buy it from a savings bank. Or you can buy a policy directly from an insurance company or from a fee-only financial advisor—what’s known as a “no load” or “low load” policy. Although there is no sales commission on these policies, the company will still have charges built into the premium to cover its marketing expenses, application processing expenses and subsequent services. Finding an insurance company that will sell you a no-load policy isn’t easy; typing in “no load life insurance” on Internet search engines will in many cases lead you to an agent or broker.
You might have life insurance automatically from your employer; many large companies do this. Your employer also might offer you the chance to buy additional life insurance under a group policy. And you might be eligible to buy life insurance under a group policy from a union or trade association or other group you belong to (such as a college alumni association or an automobile club).
Compared to buying an individual life insurance policy, there are several advantages to buying life insurance under a group policy:
- Group purchase can sometimes offer you a lower rate for a given death benefit either because the employer or other group sponsor subsidizes the premium or because the rates are averages weighted by people younger than you.
- There are virtually no health qualifications for getting the group coverage.
- Premium payment is usually by payroll deduction (for employer-based group coverage) or linked with other payments (e.g., credit card bills), lowering the chance of missing a payment.
Most employer group plans are term insurance, but if you leave that employer your state may require that you be allowed to convert the policy to a form of whole life insurance with the same insurance company that provides the group life insurance. You would then pay premiums directly to the company and keep the insurance in force. This can be an advantage if you are older, or have experienced deteriorating health, as it gives you the opportunity to qualify for whole life insurance without having a medical exam.
Credit Life Insurance
Credit cards and lending institutions may offer life insurance to pay off your outstanding loans in the event of your death. This is generally made available in two ways
- As part of the loan at no extra charge. In this case the cost of the life insurance is borne by the lender and is included in its interest rate or other finance charges. If you have this type of credit life insurance, you don’t need separate life insurance to pay off that loan if you die.
- As an option at an extra charge. In this case, you should usually reject the optional coverage, provided that you have some other life insurance (group or individual) that can be designated to pay off the loan if you die. If you’re under age 50 and you don’t have other insurance that could pay off this loan, consider buying individual life insurance for this purpose as the rates will probably be better. At 50 or over (or younger with health issues), if you have no other life insurance for this purpose, the optional credit life insurance is likely to be cheaper than individual life insurance.
What is a beneficiary?
A beneficiary is the person or entity you name in a life insurance policy to receive the death benefit. You can name:
- One person
- Two or more people
- The trustee of a trust you’ve set up
- A charity
- Your estate
If you don’t name a beneficiary, the death benefit will be paid to your estate.
Two “levels” of beneficiaries
Your life insurance policy should have both “primary” and “contingent” beneficiaries. The primary beneficiary gets the death benefits if he or she can be found after your death. Contingent beneficiaries get the death benefits if the primary beneficiary can’t be found. If no primary or contingent beneficiaries can be found, the death benefit will be paid to your estate.
As part of naming beneficiaries, you should identify them as clearly as possible and include their social security numbers. This will make it easier for the life insurance company to find them, and it will make it less likely that disputes will arise regarding the death benefits. For example, if you write “wife [or husband] of the insured” without using a specific name, an ex-spouse could claim the death benefit. On the other hand, if you have named specific children, any later-born or adopted children will not receive the death benefit—unless you change the beneficiary designation to include them.
Besides naming beneficiaries, you should specify how the benefits are to be handled if one or more beneficiaries can’t be found. For example, suppose you have two children and you name each one to receive half of the death benefit. If one of the children dies before you do, do you want the other child to get the entire death benefit, or the deceased child’s heirs to get his or her share?
If the death benefit goes to your estate, probate proceedings could delay distributing the money, and the cost of probate could diminish the amount available to your heirs.
Choosing beneficiaries, and keeping those choices up-to-date, is an important part of owning life insurance. The birth or adoption of a child, marriage or divorce can affect your initial choice. Review your beneficiary designation as new situations arise in order to make sure your choice is still appropriate.
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