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The Life Insurance Puzzle

Written by Ginny Wilson.

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We read an article last month in Investment News that suggests that life insurance should not be used as a savings vehicle. As you might imagine, there was some uproar among the life insurance industry readers that heartily disagreed with the premise of the “Guestblog” by Blair Duquesnay.   Ms. Duquesnay believes that there are certainly appropriate purposes for life insurance, but saving for retirement is not one of them. She stated in a follow-up that “life insurance is an instrument of protection, not accumulation.” We wanted to look a little closer into this to understand both sides of the argument.

First, let’s start with some of the universally acceptable reasons for having a life insurance policy. As Ms. Duquesnay says, life insurance should be purchased, in general, “because there will be a financial impact” on a business or family if someone dies. Certainly, protecting our loved ones or business partners is prudent and responsible. If something happens to you, you might want to provide a benefit for regular or special spending needs, potential increased child care costs, a mortgage payoff or other debt relief. Similarly, a death benefit might help cover college costs or provide a lifetime of comfortable support to our dependents. Some policies can be used for estate planning, long-term care or asset protection. It is also true that, in general, the need for a life insurance death benefit may decline over time, as your life circumstances change.

Let’s talk about the different types of life insurance:

1.Term Life, or annually renewable life insurance, offers an affordable premium to buy a particular level of insurance for a specific period of time. Maybe you use it, maybe you won’t and maybe you keep it going, maybe you don’t, but, either way, at the end of the term, the policy expires and, generally, there is no longer a need to have it. There is no additional value to the policy beyond the safety net of the death benefit.

2.Whole Life is the most common form of permanent life insurance, which means the benefit coverages will be around for your lifetime, as long as you pay the premiums. There are two parts to it – an investment portion (cash value) and an insurance portion (face value or death benefit). Premiums are fixed and are considerably higher than term policies, with high mortality charges for keeping the guaranteed death benefit. These products are designed to stay in force for your lifetime and come with steep surrender charges if you terminate the policy early. There are also substantial up-front commissions and fees for investing part of your premiums in a tax-deferred account. You can access your cash value by taking a loan out with the insurance company against the account value in the policy and they will charge you interest. If you stop paying the premiums, you may be able to switch to a paid-up policy that will be worth the existing cash value, but in general, these products are expensive to keep in place.

3. Universal Life is designed to also be a permanent insurance policy, but is considered adjustable because the policy offers the flexibility of changing premium amounts and having a fixed or increasing death benefit. If you need to stop paying or reduce premiums, your accumulated cash value can be used to keep the policy from lapsing. Once the policy value goes to zero, the policy and death benefit lapse forever. There can be steep surrender charges if terminating or withdrawing from your account, which will reduce any accumulated cash value. Like Whole life policies, your premium pays a portion to a high-interest cash value account and a portion for a death benefit. The growth is dependent on the performance in the accounts, on investment earnings (or losses) and on the amount of your premium contributions. The flexibility can be beneficial, but the policy value can deteriorate and lapse and the fees and costs are much higher than a term policy.

4. Variable Life – these are policies built like Universal life contracts (there are also hybrid Variable Universal Life policies, just to make it more confusing), but the investments are kept in managed mutual fund sub accounts with investments selected from a menu. This gives the policy holder more investment choice (and risk) for the cash value account in the policy. However, like Universal life, the same risk applies - the accumulation is dependent on the amount paid with your premium and the performance of the investments in the cash value account. The flexibility might be attractive, but it also increases the risk to the policy. Again, once the policy value goes to zero, the policy and death benefit lapse forever.

There are more insurance products and deeper complexities to the above definitions, but this is a basic outline of some of the life insurance choices. As you can see, the “permanent” life insurance policies and their saving (or investment) option can be costly and will allow for less flexibility in the growth of your investment savings than using standard investment accounts not tied to insurance. We generally find that the expensive fees, commissions and surrender charges keep us from recommending these products as a saving vehicle. “Buy term and invest the rest” is the motto of most fee-only advisors. The insurance industry is always working to improve these products and find the sweet spot for combining protection with accumulation. We certainly agree that there may be appropriate circumstances for using the more complex insurance products. At DWM, we don’t sell any of these insurance products, but we are happy to review your current policies or insurance needs to help you find the sweet spot for you and your family!

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