HOW SHOULD I CHOOSE WHAT TYPE OF LIFE INSURANCE TO BUY?
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 goes to your beneficiary is.
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.
HOW DO I PICK A LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY?
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. To find out which companies are licensed in any state, contact that state’s state insurance department.
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, by using ratings from independent rating agencies.
- Market ethics – 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. See How do I select a life insurance agent?
- 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?
Four independent agencies—A.M. Best, Fitch, Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s—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.
HOW SHOULD I CHOOSE A LIFE INSURANCE AGENT?
When you’re considering buying life insurance, it’s important to choose an agent or broker who can help you. Buying life insurance can be complicated or confusing. The key to buying the right amount and the right type of policy at a good rate is a good agent or broker. You should choose one who:
- Understands your financial situation, including your attitudes about risk, your income and estate tax “brackets,” and your other financial assets and obligations, as well as your personal situation (that is, your age, marital status, dependents, etc.)
- Explains, in terms you can easily understand, issues, options and planned use of life insurance in your financial program
- Provides you with a personalized written document that:
-records the facts of your current financial and personal situation and
-describes the features of the life insurance and how it fits into your situation
- Doesn’t pressure you into a decision, but works with you until you’re ready and convinced that you are doing what is best for you
- Is prepared to review with you periodically—perhaps every three years or so—whether the product continues to be suitable for your needs and circumstances
- Is licensed by your state insurance department.
The Compensation Issue
Like everyone else, agents and brokers get paid for their services, which are enriched by their education and experience. Most agents and brokers are paid by commission, but some work on a fee basis. Typically, the largest part of the compensation is paid at the time you purchase the policy, since most of the agent’s or broker’s work occurs at that time or just before it. As with any professional service, you should understand how your agent or broker will be compensated and how that might affect the purchase recommendation.
The bottom line? The best way to protect yourself is to make sure you understand what you’re buying and the nature of the product’s limitations, penalties or fees if you want to drop the policy.
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