What is Universal Life Insurance and How Does it Work?

Insurance Basics for Medical Professionals

By Jeffrey H. Rattiner, CPA, CFP®, MBA

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After determining the need for insurance and the amount to purchase, the doctor-client and financial planner’s next task is to match those needs to the doctor-client’s objectives to determine what type of policy the client should purchase. The life insurance industry features more products today than ever before. One reason for this change is that, clearly, the insurance industry has expanded its product base to become more competitive. Another reason is that clients’ needs are constantly changing and the insurance companies must keep up with those needs or run the risk of having funds withdrawn from their companies. New and different types of life insurance products are here to stay. Since life insurance represents a significant part of a client’s risk-management program, planners have to be versed in the specifics of the varied product base.

Universal Life Insurance

Universal life is a flexible premium life insurance policy that permits the policyholder to change the death benefit periodically (with satisfactory evidence of insurability for increases) or change the amount or frequency of the premium level (decreasing the amount as long as a sufficient cash value exists that would be used to pay current premiums). A fixed percentage of the gross premium is allocated to the insurer’s operating expenses and to mortality charges for the insured’s classification that changes constantly on the basis of net amount at risk and age. The remainder is credited to the policy’s cash value. Each month, the reserve fund is credited with monthly interest in a manner similar to that for whole life products. Universal life policies guarantee a minimum rate equal to that of whole life products but will credit the fund if the current rate is higher than the guaranteed rate. The excess return is accrued to the policyholder like a dividend.

Policyholders earn a fixed rate for the first year only and then a variable rate on a monthly basis thereafter on investment earnings. Interest credited to the policy depends on the insurer’s investment results. It is not possible for the insurer to predict the exact amount of cash value the insured will have down the road. The risk is that if interest rates are lower than anticipated, the insured may be required to make additional payments into the policy. Also, the insured can withdraw money without terminating the contract or can borrow money (as opposed to withdrawing or surrendering) in order to avoid tax consequences. A good rule of thumb is never to borrow more than 95% of the cash surrender value, since the remaining 5% is used to pay mortality and operating costs for the policy in the future. In the first year, the charges are unusually high because the costs of underwriting, policy issuance, and agents’ commissions are high. If the insurance company has lower expenses and passes them on to its policyholders, however, policyholders will benefit from the lower charge.

  • Required Premiums

Universal life policies usually have a minimum required premium in the first year that all insureds must pay. After that, the insured can change the premium amount and run it as an expensive term policy (i.e., pay a smaller amount) by using the cash surrender value to pay premiums. This works as an artificially paid-up policy by paying more premiums in a shorter period of time. Federal law, however, limits the amounts the insured may pay into a policy. Amounts in excess of the maximum will turn the policy into a modified endowment contract (MEC).

Death Benefit Options

There are two death benefit options under a universal life policy: option A and option B. Option A pays the face amount of the policy. Option B pays the face amount plus the cash surrender value of the policy. For example, let’s say a nonsmoking 30-year-old male wants to purchase a $200,000 universal life policy. For this, he pays an annual premium of $1,200. If the cash value at age 35 is $3,000, under option A the beneficiary would receive $200,000. Under option B, however, the beneficiary would receive a combined $203,000, which represents the death benefit plus the cash value. There is a higher cost for option B, which reflects the higher mortality charge based on the higher death benefit. Further, as in all cash value policies, if a policy loan is outstanding at the time of the insured’s death, that amount is ultimately subtracted from the death benefit.

No Flexibility

The insurance company retains the right to change the charges that it makes for mortality, and also for expenses (a maximum mortality chart will be found in the policy). This right makes it possible to know the changes being made for mortality at various ages. The insured has the ability to change the face amount or premium level. The insured has to pay only the charges for expenses and mortality to keep the policy in force. There is no flexibility within the investment, however, because universal life policies are invested in short- to medium-term money markets. The safety of cash value is high and the potential rate of return is moderate to high.

Advantages and Dis-Advantages

Advantages of universal life include policy flexibility, higher stated rate of return, and full disclosure of fees, loads, and proportion of premium invested. Disadvantages include the lack of a forced savings element if run as an expensive term policy, a potential drop in the rate of return, and lack of the most competitive investment vehicle.

  • Assessment

Historically, because the universal life product had not been tested for an entire business cycle, an adverse selection of insureds could affect the profitability of the product and, subsequently, the amount received by the policyholder. Therefore, actuaries couldn’t predict with reasonable certainty whether their mortality predictions were realistic. Also, the policy was introduced at the top of the interest rate cycle. Therefore, insureds are now learning the effects of lower current and future interest rates in this decade. Policyholders may find that the earnings in their accounts are not sufficient to cover the mortality and expense charges incurred in their policies, in some cases. If the cash value goes too low, policyholders will receive a call on their account, similar to a margin call on a leveraged stock portfolio. If a universal life policy is underfunded, there is little in the way of investment characteristics. The key to analyzing universal life policies is to have the monthly breakdown of (a) state premium taxes, (b) expenses, (c) amount at risk, (d) mortality charges, (e) account values, (f) interest earnings, and (g) surrender values. This policy is most appropriate for people who want choice and flexibility.


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