From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Life insurance (life assurance in British English) is a type of insurance. As in all insurance, the insured transfers a risk to the insurer. The insured pays a premium and receives a policy in exchange. The risk assumed by the insurer is the risk of death of the insured.
How life insurance works
There are three parties in a life insurance transaction; the insurer, the insured, and the owner of the policy (policyholder), although the owner and the insured are often the same person. For example, if John Smith buys a policy on his own life, he is both the owner and the insured. But if Mary Smith, his wife, buys a policy on John's life, she is the owner and he is the insured. The owner of the policy is called the grantee (he or she will be the person who will pay for the policy).
Another important person involved is the beneficiary. The beneficiary is the person or persons who will receive the policy proceeds upon the death of the insured. The beneficiary is not a party to the policy, but is designated by the owner, who may change the beneficiary unless the policy has an irrevocable beneficiary designation. With an irrevocable beneficiary, that beneficiary must agree to changes in beneficiary, policy assignment, or borrowing of cash value.
The policy, like all insurance policies, is a legal contract specifying the terms and conditions of the risk assumed. Special provisions apply, including a suicide clause wherein the policy becomes null if the insured commits suicide within a specified time for the policy date (usually two years). Any misrepresentation by the owner or insured on the application is also grounds for nullification. Most contracts have a contestability period, also usually a two-year period; if the insured dies within this period, the insurer has a legal right to contest the claim and request additional information before deciding to pay or deny the claim.
The face amount of the policy is normally the amount paid when the policy matures, although policies can provide for greater or lesser amounts. The policy matures when the insured dies or reaches a specified age. The most common reason to buy a life insurance policy is to protect the financial interests of the owner of the policy in the event of the insured's demise. The insurance proceeds would pay for funeral and other death costs or be invested to provide income replacing the deceased's wages. Other reasons include estate planning and retirement. The owner (if not the insured) must have an insurable interest in the insured, i.e. a legitimate reason for insuring another person’s life.
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, a 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.
Insurance vs. assurance
The specific uses of the term "insurance" and "assurance" are sometimes confused. In general, the term insurance refers to providing cover for an event that might happen while assurance is the provision of cover for an event that is certain to happen.
When a person insures the contents of their home they do so because of events that might happen (fire, theft, flood, etc.) Insurance is a way of spending a little money to protect against the risk of having to spend a lot of money. The point is, when a person insures their home contents they do so to provide protection against something that might happen. They hope their home will never be burgled, or burn down but they want to ensure that they are financially protected if the worst happens.
When a person insures their life they do so knowing that one day they will die. Therefore a policy that covers death is assured to make a payment. The policy offers assurance on death; even if the policy has a prescribed termination date the policy is still assured to pay on death and therefore is an assurance policy. Examples include Term Assurance and Whole Life Assurance. An accidental death policy is not assured to pay on death as the life insured may not die through an accident, therefore it is an insurance policy.
A policy might also be assured for other reasons. For example an endowment policy is designed to provide a lump sum on maturity. Under certain types of policy the lump sum is guaranteed. Therefore, this may also be called an assurance policy.
The test of whether a policy is assurance or insurance is that with an assurance policy the insured event will definitely occur (at some point) whereas with an insurance policy there is a risk the insured event might occur.
With regard to Whole Life policies, the question is not whether the insured event (in this case death) will occur, but simply when. If the policy has nonforfeiture values (or cash values) then the policy is assured to pay.
During recent years, the distinction between the two terms has become largely blurred. This is principally due to many companies offering both types of policy, and rather than refer to themselves using both insurance and assurance titles, they instead use just the one.
Types of life insurance
Life insurance may be divided into two basic classes – temporary and permanent.
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.
Term life insurance (term assurance in British English) provides for life insurance coverage for a specified term of years for a specified premium. The policy does not accumulate cash value. Term is generally considered "pure" insurance, where the premium buys protection in the event of death and nothing else. See theory of decreasing responsibility and buy term and invest the difference.
The three key factors to be considered in term insurance are: face amount (protection or death benefit), premium to be paid (cost to the insured), and length of coverage (term).
Various (U.S.) insurance companies sell term insurance with many different combinations of these three parameters. The face amount can remain constant or decline. The term can be for one or more years. The premium can remain level or increase. A common type of term is called annual renewable term. It is a one year policy but the insurance company guarantees it will issue a policy of equal or lesser amount without regard to the insurability of the insured and with a premium set for the insured's age at that time. Another common type of term insurance is mortgage insurance, which is usually a level premium, declining face value policy. The face amount is intended to equal the amount of the mortgage on the policy owner’s residence so the mortgage will be paid if the insured dies.
Guaranteed renewability is an important policy feature for any prospective owner or insured to consider because it allows the insured to acquire life insurance even if they become uninsurable.
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 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 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.
Naturally, it's easy to see 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 basically guarantee you the death function, 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.
Interestingly enough, UL's are closely linked to relatively stable markets, such as the 3 year treasury bill. What's interesting is not what UL's closely follow - but due to how they're linked, you'll notice that when people are happy about how little they're paying for life insurance with a UL, they're at the same time complaining about how expensive their variable rate mortgages are getting.
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 UL will in be treated 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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
Taxation of life insurance in the United States
Premiums paid by the policy owner are normally not deductible for federal and state income tax purposes.
Proceeds paid by the insurer upon death of the insured are not includable in taxable income for federal and state income tax purposes; however, the proceeds may be included in the estate of the deceased and subject to federal and state estate and inheritance tax.
Cash value increases within the policy are not subject to income taxes unless certain events occur. For this reason, insurance policies can be a legal and legitimate tax shelter wherein savings can increase without taxation until the owner withdraws the money from the policy.
The tax ramifications of life insurance are complex. The policy owner would be well advised to carefully consider them. As always, Congress or the state legislatures can change the tax laws at any time.
Taxation of life assurance in the United Kingdom
Premiums are not usually allowable against income tax or corporation tax, however qualifying policies issued prior to 14th March 1984 do still attract LAPR (Life Assurance Premium Relief) at 15% (with the net premium being collected from the policyholder).
Non-investment life policies do not normally attract either income tax or capital gains tax on claim. If the policy has as investment element such as an endowment policy, whole of life policy or an investment bond then the tax treatment is determined by the qualifying status of the policy.
Qualifying status is determined at the outset of the policy if the contract meets certain criteria. Essentially, long term contracts (10 years plus) tend to be qualifying policies and the proceeds are free from income tax and capital gains tax. Single premium contracts and those run for a short term are subject to income tax depending upon your marginal rate in the year you make a gain. All (UK) insurers pay a special rate of corporation tax on the profits form their life book; this is deemed as meeting the basic rate (22% in 2005-06) laibility for policyholders. Therefore if you are a higher rate taxpayer (40% in 2005-06), or become one through the transaction, you must pay tax on the gain at the difference between the higher and the basic rate. This gain may be reduced by applying a complicated calculation called top-slicing based on the number of years you have held the policy.
Although this may seem complicated the taxation of life assurance based investment contracts is broadly deemed beneficial compared to alternative equity based collective investment schemes (unit trusts, investment trusts and OEICs). One feature which especially favours investment bonds is the ability to draw 5% of the original investment amount each policy year without being subject to any taxation on the amount withdrawn. The withdrawal is deemed by HMRC (Her Majesties Revenue and Customs) to be a payment of capital and therefore the tax calculation is defered until further encashment above the 5% limit. This is an especially useful tax planning tool for higher rate taxpayers who expect to become basic rate taxpayers at some predictable point in the future (e.g. retirement).
The proceeds of a life policy will be included in the estate for inheritance tax (IHT) purposes. Policies written in trust may fall outside the estate for IHT purposes but it's not always that simple. If in doubt you should seek profession advice from an IFA (Independent Financial Adviser) who is regisetered with the government regulator: the Financial Services Authority.
Related life insurance products
Riders are modifications to the insurance policy added at the same time the policy is issued. These riders change the basic policy to provide some feature desired by the policy owner. A common rider is accidental death, which used to be commonly referred to as "double indemnity", which pays twice the amount of the policy face value if death results from accidental causes, as if both a full coverage policy and an accidental death policy were in effect on the insured. Another common rider is premium waiver, which waives future premiums if the insured becomes disabled.
Joint life insurance is either a term or permanent policy insuring two or more lives with the proceeds payable on the first death.
Survivorship life is a whole life policy insuring two lives with the proceeds payable on the second (later) death.
Single premium whole life is a policy with only one premium which is payable at the time the policy is issued.
Modified whole life is a whole life policy that charges smaller premiums for a specified period of time after which the premiums increase for the remainder of the policy.
Group life insurance is term insurance covering a group of people, usually employees of a company or members of a union or association. Individual proof of insurability is not normally a consideration in the underwriting. Rather, the underwriter considers the size and turnover of the group, and the financial strength of the group. Contract provisions will attempt to exclude the possibility of adverse selection. Group life insurance often has a provision that a member exiting the group has the right to buy individual insurance coverage.
Insurance companies have in recent years developed products to offer to niche markets, most notably targeting the senior market to address needs of an aging population. Many companies offer policies tailored to the needs of senior applicants. These are often low to moderate face value whole life insurance policies, to allow a senior citizen purchasing insurance at an older issue age an opportunity to buy affordable insurance. This may also be marketed as final expense insurance, and an agent or company may suggest (but not require) that the policy proceeds could be used for end-of-life expenses.
Preneed (or prepaid) insurance policies are whole life policies that, although available at any age, are usually offered to older applicants as well. This type of insurance is designed specifically to cover funeral expenses when the insured person dies. In many cases, the applicant signs a prefunded funeral arrangement with a funeral home at the time the policy is applied for. The death proceeds are then guaranteed to be directed first to the funeral services provider for payment of services rendered. Most contracts dictate that any excess proceeds will go either to the insured's estate or a designated beneficiary.
Insurance began as a way of reducing the risk of traders, as early as 5000 BC in China and 4500 BC in Babylon. Life insurance dates only to ancient Rome; "burial clubs" covered the cost of members' funeral expenses and helped survivors monetarily. Modern life insurance started in late 17th century England, originally as insurance for traders: merchants, ship owners and underwriters met to discuss deals at Lloyd's Coffee House, predecessor to the famous Lloyd's of London.
The first insurance company in the United States was formed in Charleston, South Carolina in 1732, but it provided only fire insurance. The sale of life insurance in the U.S. began the late 1760s. The Presbyterian Synods in Philadelphia and New York created the Corporation for Relief of Poor and Distressed Widows and Children of Presbyterian Ministers in 1759; Episcopalian priests organized a similar fund in 1769. Between 1787 and 1837 more than two dozen life insurance companies were started, but fewer than half a dozen survived.
Prior to the American Civil War, many insurance companies in the United States insured the lives of slaves for their owners. In response to bills passed by in California in 2001 and in Illinois in 2003, the companies have been required to search their records for such policies. New York Life for example reported that Nautilus sold 485 slaveholder life insurance policies during a two-year period in the 1840s; they added that their trustees voted to end the sale of such policies 15 years before the Emancipation Proclamation.
Life insurance policies have been used as a financial exploit; motivating people to murder somebody after purchasing a life insurance policy (ranging from $100,000 to $1,000,000) just for easy money. Despite the suspicion of a multitude of those type of circumstances; the insurance customer pays the high quantity anyway. The television series Forensic Files has many episodes about that type of scenario. This scenario is similar to insurance fraud.
- Life Assurance
- Term life insurance
- Permanent life insurance
- Whole life insurance
- Universal life insurance
- Variable universal life insurance
- Corporate-owned life insurance
- Servicemembers' Group Life Insurance
- Segregated funds
- Independent Financial Advisers
- Estate planning
- Retirement planning
- False insurance claims