How do Life Insurance Companies Make Money?

Life insurance seems like a pretty good deal. You pay $30 a month for 20 or 30 years and in the event of your death, your family gets a sizeable cash sum, often in excess of $250,000. Every 12 seconds someone dies in the United States and these deaths occur across all demographics (although the majority are over 70) and from a myriad of causes.

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If a life insurance company can afford to pay a $500,000 sum on a policy that’s collected less than $20,000, how can it afford to stay in business when life is so fragile, death is always a certainty, and they’re in it for the profit?

Contrary to what you might think, insurance companies don’t rely entirely on luck or underhanded tactics to stay in the black. There are actually three ways that an insurance company makes money and ensures those profits remain stable.

Underwriting

Underwriting is the process of taking a calculated financial risk in exchange for a fee. The word was coined as the underwriter, the “risk-taker”, would sign their name underneath a detailed outline of all risks they were willing to take.

Underwriting is performed by all life insurance companies and it’s a careful, considered process through which they can balance their profit and loss. There is no guarantee with the underwriting process and it’s not uncommon for them to lose money over the course of a financial year. However, what they lose one year may be offset by what they earn in another year.

How Insurance Companies Profit from Underwriting

Insurance is based on statistical analysis and probability. If you’re a healthy 20-year old with no preexisting medical conditions and no genetic issues, you’re considered to be very low risk. 

An insurance company may offer you a $500,000 payout on a 30-year term in exchange for a policy that costs less than $1,000 a year. They’re only making $30,000 over the term, but they know there’s a good chance you’ll live well beyond your 50th year, which means all of that $30,000 is profit.

In fact, statistically speaking, a 20-year old has a less than 6% chance of dying within 30 years and this applies to the general population. Once you account for medical issues, family health problems, smoking, drug use, dangerous jobs, and a plethora of other high-risk conditions, that figure drops to an infinitesimal sum.

The insurance company knows that if they have 50 healthy 20-year-olds on 30-year $500,000 policies, there’s a good chance that between 0 and 2 will collect. This means they will collect $1.5 million and payout between $0 and $1 million. 

The odds of a 20-year-old dying within that term increase if they have abused drugs/alcohol in the past, have a preexisting medical condition or their parents died of genetic disorders before they turned 50. In such cases, the underwriters will calculate the risks and create a policy that allows them to cover their costs.

By the same token, a life insurance company may refuse to provide a 30-year term to a 52-year-old, because according to the statistics, one out of every two will die within that term and they simply couldn’t offer realistic premiums.

Of course, these are just rough estimates, but it gives you a general idea of how life insurance companies operate. It’s also the reason why your premiums increase significantly if you are a smoker (smokers live 10 years less on average) are obese (obesity is considered to be as much of a mortality risk as smoking) or have a problematic medical history.

Canceled and Lapsed Coverage

Your life insurance policy can stop or be canceled at any time. Let’s return to the example of the 20-year-old paying premiums worth $1,000 a year. They may have taken out the life insurance policy because they just got married or they experienced a bout of paranoia after learning about a friend who died young.

But what happens when that relationship ends and that paranoia fades away; what happens if they go from being comfortably employed, to unemployed and desperate? They’re not the ones who will benefit from that payout, so they may decide that they’re just wasting their money, in which case they stop making the payments and the policy lapses. If this happens, the life insurance company gets all of the premiums and none of the liability.

Whole life insurance policies can also be cashed out. They build money through dividends and this entices the owner to give it all up for a big payday. If they’re struggling financially and realize they have a big balance waiting for them on their life insurance policy, they may be tempted to cash the check, close the account, and walk away with the windfall, thus removing all liability from the insurance company.

Refusing to Pay Out

Life insurance companies can also make money by refusing to pay out and pointing to a discrepancy. This is not part of their business strategy, and they don’t actively seek to scam their customers because, quite simply, they don’t need to. Thanks to underwriting, cash outs, lapse policies and investing, life insurance is a profitable enterprise without needing to resort to underhanded tactics.

However, they can and will refuse payouts if they determine that the contract was somehow breached. This can happen in any number of ways and for a myriad of reasons:

The Cause of Death Wasn’t Covered

Most causes of death are covered by most life insurance policies. However, there are some exceptions, including suicide. Many policies refuse to cover suicide at all, while others refuse to cover it if it occurs within the first 2 years of the policy.

More than 40,000 people take their own lives every year in the United States and it’s a common issue across all demographics. It’s also on the increase and is now the 10th biggest killer in the United States. 

As heartless as it might seem for an insurance company to refuse a payout for someone who took their own life, it’s important to remember that their underwriting is based purely on probability, and because suicide is one of the biggest killers in young men, it’s something that has to be considered.

The policy should state clearly which causes of death are covered and which ones are not. It’s also something you can discuss with the insurance company when you take out your policy.

Important Information was Not Disclosed

This is the most common reason for a payout to be refused. In some cases, the applicant is looking for cheaper premiums and knows that a few seemingly innocent lies will shave tens of dollars off their premiums. 

The policyholder may also assume that certain information isn’t relevant or be too ashamed to disclose it. For instance, if they were cautioned for driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol it may not seem relevant to the underwriting process, but if they die in a road traffic accident it could prevent a payout.

In the majority of cases, however, they simply forget. A life insurance policy is something you fill out in one sitting and something that requires you to list all previous medical conditions, hospital visits, and health complaints. It’s easy to forget a few things here and there.

There is No Beneficiary

A life insurance policy can only be paid directly to an heir when they are named as a beneficiary. If there is no beneficiary, it will be paid to the policyholder’s estate, from which their heirs can make their claim.

This becomes problematic if the policyholder has a lot of debt, as the debtors will then line up to take their share from the estate. It can also make life difficult for loved ones trying to make a claim on that estate. It’s always recommended, therefore, to name beneficiaries on the life insurance policy and to back this up by writing a will.

The Contestability Period

The above issues become more prevalent during something known as the contestability period. This begins as soon as the policy goes into effect and it can last for 1 or 2 years, depending on the policyholder’s state of residence.

If the policyholder dies during this period, the life insurance company will seek to contest it by looking at all of the details and ensuring they match. They will check the cause of death against previously filed medical reports and will make sure the correct information was supplied at the time the policy was filed and that there are no discrepancies.

Once this period passes, it’s unlikely there will be any issues, but they can still occur. The insurance company may, for instance, investigate the claim if they believe it was purchased for the sole benefit of the beneficiaries (for example, the policyholder purchases it knowing they were going to commit suicide or were about to die).

Summary: Payouts are Rare

Studies suggest that as few as 2% of all term policies pay out, and the most common reason for non-payment is that the policyholder survives the term. This is a statistic that detractors like to quote and it’s often followed by a claim that life insurance is just institutionalized gambling. 

To an extent, they’re right. You’re essentially gambling against a house that always wins and, like a casino, it always wins because, for every player that wins, 10 others will lose. The difference is that life insurance provides some much-needed peace of mind while you’re alive and ensures your loved ones are covered in the event that anything happens to you.