Underwriting is a part of applying for a life insurance policy where the issuing company gathers information about you to assess risk. Once underwriting is completed, your potential life insurance company will provide you with a final quote and issue a policy. The specific steps for underwriting can vary based on factors such as the company's processes, the type of policy and the coverage amount you're seeking.
What Is Life Insurance Underwriting?
Life insurance underwriting is the process of evaluating your risk profile to determine your insurance premium. A life insurance underwriter carefully analyzes various factors, including age, health, medical history, lifestyle, occupation and other relevant information. The main goal is to assess your health and morbidity risk, then calculate an appropriate premium rate for the policy.
Two Main Parts of Life Insurance Underwriting
There are two main parts of life insurance underwriting: medical underwriting and financial underwriting. They enable underwriters to evaluate your risk comprehensively, considering both the health-related factors and the financial capacity to sustain the policy.
Medical underwriting is a comprehensive assessment of your health and medical history, which is used to adjust insurance premiums. This information is gathered through a company-sponsored medical exam and digital questionnaire. You can visit a participating lab for the exam, see your doctor or the insurance company can send someone directly to your home or place of work.
Financial underwriting focuses on evaluating your financial information to determine your capacity for the desired coverage. Underwriters assess your financial stability and capability by examining factors such as income, assets and debts. The goal is to strike the right balance and provide an insurance plan that meets your needs and financial capacity.
Key Risk Factors Evaluated in Life Insurance Underwriting
The process of life insurance underwriting involves a detailed evaluation of various factors that impact your life expectancy. These risk factors help underwriters determine the level of risk associated with insuring your lifestyle and set an appropriate premium rate. Here are some common risk factors that underwriters evaluate:
Age is a significant risk factor in life insurance underwriting. As age increases, the likelihood of health issues and mortality-related concerns also tends to rise, so older individuals are considered riskier to insure than younger people.
Health and Medical History
Underwriters evaluate your health and medical history to assess potential risks. They consider factors such as pre-existing medical conditions, chronic illnesses, family medical history, lifestyle choices and previous surgeries or treatments. Adverse health conditions or a history of certain diseases may increase your perceived risk and can impact premium rates.
Certain lifestyle choices impact life insurance underwriting. For example, smoking or tobacco use is often associated with higher health risks and increased mortality rates. Other factors such as alcohol consumption, participation in hazardous activities (extreme sports) or working in a high-risk occupation may also be considered.
Body Mass Index (BMI)
Body weight and BMI are taken into account as they can indicate potential health risks. If you have a higher BMI, you may face increased health concerns such as cardiovascular issues, diabetes and other weight-related conditions.
While not directly related to health, your financial livelihood is evaluated to ensure the requested coverage is affordable and appropriate. Income, assets, debts and financial responsibilities are considered to determine your financial capacity to support an applicant’s desired coverage.
Family Medical History
Underwriters may review your family medical history to assess the potential genetic or hereditary risks. Conditions such as heart disease, cancer and hereditary illness may impact risk assessment and underwriting decisions.
Life Insurance Underwriting Methods
There are several types of underwriting, each with its unique approach, benefits and drawbacks. The best choice depends on your health, comfort with sharing personal information, need for speed in obtaining coverage and willingness to pay higher premiums for faster or guaranteed coverage. Understanding these different types can help you make informed decisions when buying life insurance.
Full underwriting is a comprehensive review, potentially involving a medical exam and records, that takes weeks to complete but offers precise insurance pricing based on your risk.
Accelerated underwriting leverages data from medical databases and possibly wearable devices for quick health assessments. This process can provide decisions within days or even minutes.
Automated underwriting uses algorithms for risk assessment. While it offers instant decisions, it may be less thorough than full underwriting due to its reliance on automated calculations. Consequently, consumers could face a risk of higher premiums due to these less meticulous calculations.
Simplified underwriting uses a streamlined application with fewer questions and no medical exam, offering a quick turnaround but potentially higher premiums due to limited information.
Guaranteed issue life insurance offers coverage to almost anyone without health questions or exams but often has higher premiums and lower coverage amounts due to increased insurer risk. Older adults typically apply for this type of life insurance.
How the Life Insurance Underwriting Process Works
Life insurance underwriting involves several steps designed to assess risk. It's important to note that the specific steps and requirements can vary between different insurers and types of policies. Some companies offer accelerated or fluidless underwriting, streamlining the process by eliminating the medical exam and using technology to determine your risk profile. But this streamlining can come at the cost of higher premiums for you.
During the underwriting process, your policy can be declined or modified based on the assessed risk. Honesty and transparency are crucial throughout the process. Providing accurate information is vital, as any misrepresentation or failure to disclose relevant details can potentially void the policy.
The process begins when you submit an application for life insurance. This application includes your personal details, health history, lifestyle and the amount of coverage you're seeking.
The insurance company's underwriters review your application. They assess your risk level based on the information you've provided, such as your age, health status, occupation, hobbies and lifestyle habits.
Depending on the insurance company and the type of policy you're applying for, you may be required to undergo a medical examination. This exam can include measurements of your height, weight, blood pressure and other health indicators. Blood and urine samples may also be collected for further testing.
The underwriters conduct a detailed evaluation of your application and medical examination results. They may also review your medical records, prescription history, driving record, credit history and public records. This evaluation helps the underwriters determine your overall risk profile.
Policy Approval and Premium Determination
If the underwriters approve your application, they will then determine the premium you'll need to pay for your policy. This premium will be based on your risk profile — the higher your perceived risk, the higher your rates will be.
Once the premium is determined, the insurance company will issue your policy. You'll then need to pay your premium to activate your coverage.
Underwriting Process Outcomes
During life insurance underwriting, the terms, conditions and availability of coverage can be influenced by different outcomes. Ideally, the application is approved, resulting in the policy being issued with the requested terms and conditions. However, there is a possibility of being denied coverage. It's also important to be aware that the final premium quoted or policy provisions may be modified to be less favorable than what was initially discussed or advertised.
This is the most favorable outcome, where the insurance company accepts the application as submitted. The policy is issued with the terms, coverage amount and premium rates initially requested.
Approval With Modifications
The insurance company may approve the application but modify the policy terms, coverage amount or premium. These modifications are based on assessed risk and are designed to align the policy accordingly.
This is a situation where the underwriter delays the underwriting process or the final decision on an application. This delay could be due to various reasons, such as the need for further evaluation or the absence of sufficient information. During a postponement, the underwriter may require additional information from the applicant or conduct further assessments before reaching a final decision.
The insurance company may decline your application. This can happen if your risk profile is deemed too high or if you have certain medical conditions or lifestyle choices that make you ineligible for coverage. If an application is declined, you will need to explore alternative insurance options or seek guidance from an insurance professional.
How Long Does Life Insurance Underwriting Take?
Underwriting duration varies depending on case complexity and insurer efficiency. Simpler cases without significant health concerns may take two to four weeks. However, complex cases or the need for additional medical tests can extend the process to four to eight weeks or more. These timeframes are general estimates, and the actual duration can vary depending on the specific circumstances and the efficiency of the underwriting process within the insurance company. Prompt communication and provision of requested information help expedite the process.
Factors That Can Extend the Underwriting Duration
Several factors can contribute to the extension of the life insurance underwriting process, including the following:
Complex Health History
Evaluating intricate medical conditions requires gathering more records and consulting with medical professionals, leading to longer evaluation periods.
Stricter scrutiny and additional documentation are necessary for specialized policies or higher coverage amounts, resulting in extended underwriting.
Medical Examinations and Tests
Obtaining and evaluating test results takes time, causing delays in the underwriting process.
Underwriting Review and Approval
A backlog of applications or high case volumes can lengthen the duration needed for a thorough review.
Delays in obtaining medical records, coordinating with vendors or consulting with additional underwriters can contribute to longer underwriting timelines.
Health Classifications and Their Impact on Your Premium
After underwriting, life insurance risk classes are determined based on a comprehensive evaluation of various factors. These classes reflect the level of risk you pose to the insurance company. Your assigned risk class directly impacts your premium rates. The impact of risk classes on premiums can vary among insurance providers. Generally, an applicant can be classified into one of five categories for a life insurance policy, listed here from the most favorable to the least favorable:
Impact on Premium
This is the most favorable risk class. Individuals in this category are typically in excellent health with no significant medical history, no tobacco use and a favorable family health background. They may also maintain a healthy lifestyle and have no risky hobbies or occupations.
Because of their low risk, they are awarded the lowest premium rates.
Preferred risk class individuals are generally in good health with a relatively low-risk profile. They may have minor medical history, no tobacco use for a certain period and a favorable family health background.
Although not as ideal as Preferred Plus, they still receive favorable premium rates compared to the Standard risk classes.
Individuals in the Standard Plus risk class have average health and a moderate risk profile. They may have some minor medical history or controlled health conditions that don’t significantly impact their life expectancy.
Premium rates for this class are usually slightly higher than for Preferred classes but lower than the Standard class.
The Standard risk class represents the average or typical risk profile. Individuals in this class may have a more extensive medical history or manageable health conditions. They might also have a moderate family health background or engage in mildly risky activities.
Premium rates for this class are usually higher than Preferred and Standard Plus classes but lower than Substandard or Table Rating classes.
Tobacco users pose a higher risk due to the associated health complications. Insurance companies often charge significantly higher premiums for individuals in the Tobacco risk class compared to non-smokers.
The premiums for tobacco users can be several times higher than those for individuals in the Preferred or Standard classes.
Substandard or Table Rating
The Substandard or Table Rating risk class represents individuals with significant health issues, a high-risk lifestyle or other factors that increase their mortality risk. Premium rates for this class can be considerably higher than for the Preferred, Standard Plus and Standard classes.
The specific increase in premiums depends on the severity of the risk factors and the assigned Table rating.
Preparing for Life Insurance Underwriting: Tips for a Smooth Application
When applying for life insurance, the underwriting process plays a crucial role in assessing your eligibility and determining the terms of your policy. Being prepared and organized can significantly streamline this process and increase the likelihood of a favorable outcome. Here are some tips to help you prepare for life insurance underwriting:
Compare insurance companies
Research and compare different insurance companies to find the one that best fits your needs. Various companies may have different documentation requirements for underwriting.
Gather necessary information
Collect all relevant personal, medical and financial information that will be required during the underwriting process.
Be honest and accurate
Provide truthful and accurate information on your application. Disclose any pre-existing medical conditions, medications or risky activities you participate in.
Review your health
Take steps to improve your health before the underwriting process. Maintain a healthy lifestyle and manage any chronic conditions.
Organize medical records
Gather any medical records or test results that may be requested, including medical history, medication records and family medical history. Having these readily available will help expedite the underwriting process.
Consult with an agent or advisor
Seek guidance from a knowledgeable insurance agent or financial advisor who can assist you in understanding the underwriting process and answer any questions you have.
Be prepared for medical exam
In some cases, a medical examination may be required. Follow any instructions provided and ensure you are well-rested and prepared for the exam.
These life insurance underwriting resources will help you get started.
- Life Happens: Make informed decisions about life insurance through interactive tools, calculators and educational materials.
- Insurance Information Institute: Access comprehensive information on life insurance underwriting, including consumer guides, articles and educational resources.
- American Council of Life Insurers: Gain valuable insights into life insurance underwriting with industry research, reports and educational materials from this trade association.
- National Association of Insurance Commissioners: Discover consumer resources, educational materials and useful tools to understand insurance and the underwriting process.
- Financial Planning Association: Utilize their "PlannerSearch" tool to find certified financial planners who can provide guidance on life insurance underwriting and other financial planning matters.
About Nathan Paulus
- Insurance Information Institute. "Facts + Statistics: Life insurance." Accessed June 23, 2023.
- Life Insurance Marketing and Research Association. "New Study Shows Interest in Life Insurance at All-Time High in 2023." Accessed June 23, 2023.
- Life Office Management Association. "The Future of Life Insurance Underwriting." Accessed July 4, 2023.
- McKinsey & Company. "The Future of Life Insurance: Reimagining the Industry for the Decade Ahead." Accessed July 14, 2023.