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Sunday, February 15, 2009

Common Myths About Whole Life Insurance

By David C Lewis, RFA

Life insurance is necessary. However, most individuals do not carry enough of it. The idea behind life insurance is that we all die. If your spouse dies prematurely, a life insurance policy will make sure that there is enough income to make your family whole for the financial loss you've suffered. Pretty much every adviser agrees having life insurance is a good thing.

But, this is where the consensus ends (sadly). Most every financial professional recognizes the importance of life insurance. However, "gurus" like Dave Ramsey and Suze Orman have done a good job of painting the picture that whole life insurance is "evil". There is opposition though, and quite a debate over the issue.

The life insurance industry, and all of it's agents, of course love it. For the most part, the investment industry discounts its importance. So, who wins the debate?

It's surprising that the financial industry is supposed to be the educator. I say that only because many of the financial advisors in my industry seem to be more concerned about what the next "hot" mutual fund is...or manipulating interest rate returns, eliminating or disguising fees and disregarding suitability with respect to their clients.

In truth, neither the insurance industry nor the investment industry is doing a very good job of defending their respective positions. Point Blank: Financial "gurus" are leaving out critical information. Either they do not have a very good grasp of how life insurance really works, or they are outright lying. Either scenario is totally unacceptable.

Their motives for deception can be numerous, and diverse. Now, there isn't anything wrong with pointing out the flaws in a financial product, as long as it can be done objectively. However, in the case of life insurance, the attacks being made are baseless and unsound. This is especially shocking because most, if not all, of these attacks are coming from high profile, well known financial professionals. Here are a few common lies, attacks, & misconceptions:

Lie Number One:

Cash value life insurance is one of the worst financial products available, and it is definitely the worst type of insurance you can buy to insure your life. The BEST kind of insurance is term insurance because it's cheap and I'm not paying all those extra fees to the evil and greedy insurance company. Besides, don't insurance companies have a record of being reckless, cheating their policyholders, and systematically going out of business.

Fact: About 1% of all term policies pay a claim. So, your family has (roughly) a 1% chance that they will benefit from that term policy. Term insurance is cheap - IF you are only considering the cost per thousand dollars of insurance. It is guaranteed to get more expensive as time goes on (and you will see this if your policy gets repriced). Life insurance companies are not dumb. They know they can collect premiums from term life and make a killing because the turnover rate is high (people drop their policies before the term is up) or the policy owner simply doesn't die before the term is up. Life insurance companies are in the business to make money and provide a product. You have to understand how they position their products and how they make money.

Insurance uses something called the Law of Large Numbers. Basically this is how it works: the larger the group of people you are insuring, the more certain you can be about the number of losses you will sustain.

If I started a life insurance company and I only had one customer, I would be taking on an incredible risk because of the nature of life insurance, if that one person dies, I could be out of business very quickly. If, however, I have thousands or millions of customers, then I can manage the risk. Since no one can predict when a specific individual will die (i.e. no one can predict when I will die), I need a large number of people to study to formulate a statistic. With a large enough number of people, I can make surprisingly accurate predictions about the number of individuals within a particular group that will die in any given year. So...what do the statistics say?

They say that that term insurance doesn't pay, since most individuals live until age 65. This is why I say permanent is a better deal. In the long-run, it's cheaper. I know, I know...there are probably a few of you saying "no way, it is always cheaper to buy term insurance". Oh yeah? Watch this:

Let's reuse our example, Jim. Let's assume Jim is 25 and in good health with a wife and a Kiddo. He needs life insurance, and he is looking at $250,000 in coverage. A 30-year level term policy would cost Jim around $370 per year until age 55. At that point, Jim's premiums spike to over $4,700 per year.

After 65, will have spent $58,780 in premiums. That's a lot! Also, remember that this is money that the insurance company collects and never has to give back. Since there's no cash value associated with term insurance, the insurance contract pays off only when he dies.

What would have happened if he had purchased the same amount of death benefit but used a universal life insurance policy? His annual premiums would have been higher - $1739. By his 65th birthday, Jim has a total premium outlay of $69,560 ($1739 x 40). Wow! But, he will have built up $157,000 of cash value inside the policy.

That money can be used on a tax-free basis to supplement his retirement or left alone to continue growing. This is an example of one of many living benefits that permanent insurance has (didn't your adviser tell you about that?). Some permanent policies also offer an option to spend down up to 100% of the death benefit for any reason in the event of a critical, chronic, or terminal illness. This can be especially useful if you haven't been able to accumulate a lot of money and something tragic happens to you...and you live!

Lie number two:

Cash value life insurance is overpriced. You can never tell how much money you are spending on death benefit and how much money is actually going into the cash value of the policy. With term insurance, the costs are clear.

Fact: Whole life insurance carries a stigma in that it is often difficult to determine how much the death benefit is costing you. However, universal life insurance is, in actuality, a term policy with a separate savings account - often called 'the pot of money'. The costs are broken down and the policy is very transparent. Cash value insurance can seem expensive in comparison to term insurance because of the front loaded nature of the contract and the fact that you are forced to save money in a cash account. Sadly, the fees charged by the insurance company are being stressed (I guess they don't know that all financial products carry similar fees).

Be thankful that you pay some of the fees that you do. It makes saving and investing money a lot easier. In regard to life insurance, you have a choice: the contract can be set up to maximize the death benefit (maximizing the cost of the contract), or it can be set up to focus on cash accumulation (minimizing expense charges). All of the expenses associated with permanent life insurance can be made just as efficient and in some cases more efficient than an investment product. But why compare insurance to an investment?

In the long run, you will usually get all of your money back that you put into a cash value policy and then some. You can even structure the policy so that it provides substantial cashflow in retirement. The only exceptions to this are variable life insurance contracts. There really aren't any guarantees on them.

Lie number three:

If you are smart with the money you have today and you get rid of your mortgage, car loans and credit card debt and put money into retirement plans you don't need insurance 30 years from now to protect your family when you die.

Fact: You might need insurance to protect your children from a big tax burden. Even if you are "smart" with your money, you can't predict the future with absolute certainty. Some people alive today are experiencing a 40% loss in their retirement accounts 5 years before retirement. This is money that was supposed to be there for them and it isn't. If your investments take a hit right before YOU are ready to retire, it doesn't matter how "smart" you were with your money.

Is life insurance is necessary as you get older? You will be shocked at the costs of even a modest funeral these days. What does the average funeral cost in your home town? Ask a funeral director. What is the inflation effect in the funeral industry. If it costs $12,000 today, what will it cost in 10 years? 20 years? 30 years? Ask any beneficiary who has been left any amount of money what they paid in taxes and if it was financially disruptive to them personally.

That cash value life insurance policy that your financial guru told you to ditch could have bypassed probate, provided an income tax free death benefit and, inside of a life insurance trust, completely avoided the estate tax thereby giving your heirs what they deserve.

Although many financial gurus try to draw a connection between insurance and investing in the process of telling you what a lousy investment cash value life insurance is, comparing this type of insurance to investing is nonsensical. It's like asking "how many vinyl records does it take to equal a DVD?"...we're talking about two different products that, while somewhat related, work in two very different ways - each with their own different objectives.

Before you make a final decision on whether to buy term or cash value life insurance, consider what you are really looking for. If you are looking for an investment, then be prepared to look for stocks, bonds, no load mutual funds, options, and other various financial derivatives (and learn how to research them). If you're looking for a long-term savings tool, then cash value life insurance can fit that need very well.

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