How Some Life Insurance Policies Fail and Leave Grieving Families to Struggle Financially
Many people own life insurance, but let's face it. It's probably not a purchase that most people brag about to their friends like they might if they had just purchased a new Corvette, but they made the purchase anyway because they love their families and want their family to carry on living their current lifestyle in the event of the primary breadwinner's untimely death. While this article doesn't apply to people who own term insurance, those who bought permanent life insurance, which is life insurance with an additional savings component, will find this information very important.
To understand the problem, I will first give you a brief primer on life insurance, and then explain how something that seems like a sure bet can go so wrong. Life insurance can be separated in to two basic types, term and permanent life insurance. With term insurance a person pays a certain amount of money, called a premium, for a period of time, from one year up to 30 years. During the specified period of time, as long as the insured person is paying the premium, the insurance company is obligated to pay a certain amount of money, called a death benefit, to the insured person's beneficiary in the event the insured person dies during that time period. If the person does not die in that time period the insurance company keeps the money as well as the earnings on that money. While there are different types of term insurance nowadays, including "return of premium" term which returns the insureds premium dollars at the end of the term(but not the earnings on the money), the general jist of term insurance is that a person is covered during a certain period of time. If they want coverage beyond that time period they have to buy another policy. Term insurance is really not the focus of this article so if that's what you have you can stop reading now if you wish, and rest assured that as long as you pay the premium, and the insurance company remains financially solvent, your family will be paid in the event of your untimely death.
The other type insurance is called permanent insurance. Permanent insurance is insurance that has a death benefit to it, similar to term, but also contains a savings "sidecar", this gives the policy a value called cash value. The premiums are paid on the policy, a portion is pulled to pay for the insurance and the remainder goes into the savings sidecar. There are three primary types of permanent insurance that vary depending on what is done with the savings component. The first type of permanent insurance is Whole Life Insurance. The savings component of Whole Life Insurance is invested in the general fund of the insurance company where it earns interest. The amount of interest apportioned to a particular individual is depended on how much of the money in the general fund belongs to that individual. Some policies if they are are "participating" policies also earn dividends. Generally speaking whole life policies are not a lapse danger as the amounts that it earns are guaranteed by the insurance company. As long as the insurance company remains solvent it will pay out a death benefit. The only problems a person who owns a Whole Life policy typically runs into is overpaying for insurance, and the death benefit not keeping pace with inflation.
The second type of permanent insurance is called Universal Life Insurance. With Universal Life Insurance the savings sidecar is a separate account, as opposed to Whole Life where the savings sidecar is invested into the general fund of the insurance company. Universal Life Insurance's main advantage is it's flexibility. For example, if you are a landscaper in the northeastern part of the country and basically have your winter months off, you could buy a Universal Life policy, fund it heavily during the spring, summer, and fall when you're raking in the big bucks, and then not pay anything during the winter months. As long as there is a certain amount of money in the savings sidecar (based on insurance company formulas), nothing needs to be done. Also, if you need additional insurance because you just had a child, you don't need to buy another policy. As long as you are insurable you can increase the death benefit on your current Universal Life Insurance policy and pay the extra premium. The money in the savings sidecar of a Universal Life Insurance policy is typically invested in ten year bonds. The Universal Life policy has a guaranteed interest rate to it, as well as a current rate. The money in the sidecar typically earns the slightly higher current rate, but the policy owner is only guranateed the guaranteed amount. Keep this last thought in your mind because after I describe Variable Insurance in the next paragraph, I'm going to tie these two together in the following paragraph and that final concept is the thing that's going wrong
The final type of permanent life insurance is Variable Life Insurance. It can be either straight Variable Life Insurance, or Variable Universal Life Insurance, which combines the versatility of Universal with Variable Life Insurance. Variable Insurance came about due to the awesome bull market in stocks that ran basically uninterrupted from 1982 through 2000. People wanted to invest as much as possible in the stock market and the thought of investing money in an insurance policy that invested in lower yielding bonds was quite distasteful to many. So the Variable Insurance Policy was built. With Variable Life the savings sidecar can be invested in insurance "sub-accounts" which are basically mutual funds within a Variable Life, or Variable Annuity. In fact, many sub-accounts exactly mirror a particular mutual fund, some mutual fund managers manage both their respective fund as well as its sub-account "sister." So with the Variable Life policy buying insurance no longer meant leaving the high flying stock market, you could have the best of both worlds by protecting your family AND investing in the stock market. As long as the savings in the sidecar was at an adequate level things were fine. Again, remember this last line because I'm about to show you how the whole thing goes to pot.
In the heyday of Universal Life Insurance and Variable Life Insurance interest rates were high and so was the stock market, and the insurance industry had two products that were custom designed to take advantage of the times. The problem came about when the agents designing these policies for the public assumed that the high interest rates and high flying stock market would never end. You see, whenever these products are sold, several assumptions have to be made outside of the guaranteed aspect of the policies which is typically about 3-5%, depending on the insurance company. The current values are paid out based on the prevailing rates or returns of the time, and that's exactly how the policies were designed. I can still remember when I began in the insurance industry back in 1994, when the experienced agents in my office were were writing Universal Life with a hypothetical 10-15% interest rate. Variable Universal would be written anywhere between 10-20%. Happy days were here to stay. Or were they? Unfortunately, those interest rates started heading south about the mid-1990s, and as we all know, except for a couple of years, the stock market didn't do so swell after the 2000 tech bubble, maybe two or three "up" years out of eight and possibly nine. This is a real problem because many families' futures were riding on the assumptions that were made in these policies. Many policyowners were told to pay during their working years and then to quit when they retired and the policy would be fine, the returns earned on the savings sidecar would keep the policy in force. There are countless Universal and Variable Life policies in bank and corporate trust accounts, as well as in dresser drawers and fire proof safes that were bought and assumed that as long as the premiums were paid, things were good to go. Many of these policies are sick or dying as we speak. Some people, or trustees will get a notice letting them know that they need to add more money or the policy will lapse, of course by this time "red line" has already been reached. The people who get this notice may even ignore it because hey, the agent said that all would be well, "pay for 20 years and the family will be taken care of when I meet my maker." So the policy will lapse and nobody will know it till it comes time for the family to collect their money, only to find out that they will meet the same fate as Old Mother Hubbard's Dog. If anybody reading this can picture the litigation attorneys licking their chops, waiting to let insurance agents and trustees have it with both barrels for negligence, don't worry that onslaught has already begun. But if you have one of these policies, don't count on the 50/50 prospect of winning a court case, do something about it!
One of the first things I do when I get a new client that has an existing permanent life insurance policy is do an "audit" of that policy. Just like the IRS does an audit to find out where the money went, I do an audit to find out where the premiums went. The way this is done is by ordering what is called an "In Force Ledger" on the policy from the insurance company. The In Force Ledger will show the status of the policy now under current conditions, as well as several other scenarios paying more or less money. It will also show if the policy is lapsed or will lapse in the future. By doing this audit the policyholder may get something that they didn't have before, OPTIONS!
For example, take a 50 year old policyowner, who is also the insured on the policy, and the In Force Ledger showed that the policy, under current condtions is going to lapse when the policyowner is 63 assuming premium payments were going to be kept the same, and stock market conditions were going to stay the same (this was in early 2007 and this policy was a Variable Universal Life, it probably would not have lasted till 63, given what has happened in the stock market.) Since the policyowner is the family breadwinner, they have a 16 year old daughter, and their savings could not sustain the wife and daughter in the event of an early death of the breadwinner, whether or not to keep the life insurance is not even a question, life insurance is absolutely needed in this case. Now the next question is, does he keep on paying on a policy that is going to lapse or write a new one? For that I go to some business associates at an insurance brokerage I work with, and find out how we can get a new policy without a huge increase in premium, in some cases the it is possible to get an increase in death benefit and a decrease in premium. How can this be done since the policyholder is older than when the policy is written? Easy. With the advances in medicine between 1980 and 2000 (the years the mortality tables used were written), people are living longer, conditions that used to cause death such as cancer, people are surviving and even live normal lives after the cancer is eliminated. It used to be you either smoked or you didn't. Now allowances are made for heavy smokers, social smokers, snuff users, cigar smokers etc. One company will even allow mild cannabis use. So in some cases your policy may not be lapsing, but a person may be overpaying even though they are older. Maybe they smoked socially then, but quit 5 years ago, but their policy still has them listed as a smoker paying the same premium as someone that smoked like a chimney. What happens if the solution that makes the most sense is a new policy? We do what is called a 1035 Exchange into a new policy, that allows the cash value of the current policy to be transferred to the new one without being taxed. What if the insured doesn't want another life insurance policy but wants to get out of the one they are currently in and not pay taxes? Then we do a 1035 Exchange to an annuity, either variable or fixed. I'm currently using a no-load annuity that works great and the expenses are low. Is a 1035 Exchange right in every situation? Absolutely NOT! Many things must be explored before making the exchange, especially on a policy written before 1988 when the tax law on insurance policies changed for the worse, in the above example it proved to be the correct move, but in the end it's up to the policyowner and family as to what direction to go.
In conclusion, if you have a permanent life insurance policy that is 5 years old or older, make sure you have it audited. The cost (nothing), versus the benefit (a family that doesn't have financial worries in their time of grief) makes this decision a no-brainer.
As usual, if you have any questions about the matters discussed in this paper, feel free to write me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Christian Halas is owner and wealth manager with Halas Consulting located in Pittsburgh, PA. Halas Consulting prides itself in providing unique and objective solutions to various insurance, investment, banking, tax, and estate issues faced by individuals and small businesses. Investment services provided in conjuction with Venn Wealth and Benefit Services, a PA Registered Investment Advisor. Christian can be reached via email at email@example.com with any questions or comments on this article
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