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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Is Permanent Life Insurance Worth The Money?

By David C Lewis, RFA

Today, life insurance is based around the idea that if you or your spouse dies, that your family will be made whole by replacing your spouse's income. This essential foundation for effective financial planning is often overlooked by many individuals. Most advisers agree that life insurance is necessary.

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.

Some financial advisors love cash value insurance, others hate it. Who's right? Who's wrong?

It is sometimes surprising that the financial industry is charged with the responsibility of informing and educating the rest of society about saving and investing principles, and yet many of the advisors that represent the industry seem to be less concerned about truth and honesty, and more concerned about injecting their own personal agenda.

I say that in light of the fact that on both sides of the debate, neither is doing a very good job of defending their position. Many financial professionals are simply leaving out critical information, or appear to not have a very good grasp of how life insurance really works.

Their reasons for lying can be many. Now, there's nothing wrong with pointing out the shortcomings in a financial product. In the case of life insurance; however, the attacks being made are completely baseless. This is especially disheartening because most, if not all, of these attacks are originating from well known financial "gurus". Here are a few of the lies being spread around:

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: Less that 2% of all term policies ever sold ever pay a claim. Which means: there is a 98% chance that your family will never benefit from a term policy. Term insurance may be the best type of insurance if all you are considering is the cost per thousand dollars of insurance. It is generally the worst type of insurance you can buy to insure your life if you are expecting your family to benefit from it (statistically speaking). You need to understand how life insurance companies position their products and how they make money.

Insurance companies use the Law of Large Numbers. They sample a group of people (similar age, height, weight, etc.). The larger the group of people they insure, the more accurate they are about the number of losses they will see.

For example, if we were to start an insurance company and we only had one customer, we would be taking on an incredible risk because of the nature of life insurance, if that one person dies, we could be out of business very quickly (imagine that one customer giving you $20 for a $250,000 death benefit and then dying the very next day). If, however, we have a million customers, then we can better control the risks we are taking by insuring other people's lives. No one can predict when an individual will die, but if we study a large enough group of people, we can make surprisingly accurate predictions about the number of individuals within that group that will die in any given year. Given that insurance companies have an excellent record of predicting deaths every year, what do all of the statistics say?

They tell us that term insurance just doesn't pay...well not for policy owners anyway. Most people live until age 65. After that premium costs spike dramatically. This is why I say that, on most accounts, permanent is cheaper, even though there are probably a few critics saying "no Dave, it's cheaper on all accounts". 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.

At age 65, he will have spent $58,780 on policy premiums. Keep in mind that this is money that the insurance company collected but never had to pay back. Since there's no cash value in a pure insurance (term) plan, the insurance contract pays off only when Jim 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's $87,000 more than his premium payments for those 40 years. That's also money that can be used on a tax-free basis to help supplement retirement. This is called a living benefit, and a feature that term just doesn't offer. Some of the more competitive permanent policies also offer an option to spend down the death benefit if you become terminally ill. This can be helpful if you haven't accumulated a lot of money and something tragic happens to you and you don't die...or you don't want to spend down your savings.

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 is not very transparent. So it is difficult to determine how much the death benefit is costing you. That bothers some people. That's OK. Just don't buy whole life insurance. Universal life insurance, on the other hand, is very transparent. That's because UL policies are a term policy with a separate savings account. You can easily determine the cost per thousand dollars of insurance, how much is going to pay the death benefit, and how much is going into the cash value of the policy. Cash value insurance seems expensive in comparison to term insurance (at least initially) because insurance contracts are front loaded as far as fees are concerned. That's a good thing...because the contract becomes cheaper over time. Unfortunately, the initial cost is really driven home by the anti-cash value life insurance crowd.

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?

Over the long-term, you should get all of your money back that you put into a cash value policy with interest (note: the exception to this is variable life insurance which doesn't guarantee cash values). If the policy is structured properly, you can also be left with a sizable amount that can be drawn on in retirement.

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.

The cash value life insurance that your financial guru told you was evil and that you didn't need could have prevented all of this by bypassing probate, providing an income tax free death benefit and, inside of a life insurance trust, completely avoided the estate tax thereby giving your heirs, your favorite charity, or your church 100% of the money you wanted to give them.

Although many so-called experts try to compare life insurance to an investment, don't be fooled. Yes, life insurance, if properly structured, can build very strong cash values that rival investment products (my guess as to why the investment folks are upset). They try to tell you what a lousy investment cash value life insurance is. But comparing this type of insurance to investing is nonsensical. It's like asking "how many walkmans does it take to equal an Ipod?"...cash value insurance serves a different purpose from an investment. Each has 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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