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What every CPA needs to know about life insurance.

Editor's note: Sarah Phelan is Technical Manager of the AICPA Personal Financial Planning Team.

The authors' views, as expressed in this column, do not necessarily reflect the views of the AICPA. Official positions are determined through certain specified committee procedures, due process and deliberations.

If you would like further information, contact Ms. Phelan at (201) 938-3717 or

Life insurance is just one of the many products used to implement and secure a client's financial plan. With more than $1 trillion of life insurance death benefits purchased each year, it is clearly an important product to understand and assess on behalf of clients who might turn to their accountants for advice or even purchase.

Life insurance products have gone through a complete transformation in the last 20 years or so, and a policy purchased in 1975 bears little resemblance to one available today. This product revolution has been accompanied by an unprecedented level of competition, aided by policy illustrations. While computerized illustrations in many ways enabled the development and propagation of today's high-tech policies, those same illustrations were at the heart of class action and individual lawsuits against the life insurance industry and its agents during the 1990s--and financial reparations for "under-performing" policies have to date exceeded $6 billion.

As accountants expand their practices into financial planning in general and contemplate obtaining the appropriate licenses to be able to place the products necessary for implementation of financial plans, it becomes important that the accounting community have a better understanding of life insurance and the illustrations that presume to represent life insurance policies.

Policy Illustrations

Policy illustrations were first conceived as a practical way to show a client how a policy works. They include numerical examples that demonstrate how the payment of a (generally) level premium creates cash value, which in turn supports the affordable death benefit for the life of the insured, no matter how long he might live. The problem is that the numbers suggest a prediction or even a promise of future policy values. With the enormous flexibility within Universal Life (UL) and Variable Universal Life (VUL) policies to "pay whatever premium you like" policy illustrations conveyed a sense of security and optimism, without making certain that the policy buyer understood the risk that had been shifted when a premium less than that which would guarantee the death benefit was chosen as the paid premium.

It was quite common in the 1980s to see policy illustrations suggesting that just seven premium payments would be sufficient to maintain a policy for as long as the insured lived. This projection was based on interest-crediting rates in the 12-14% range, which were in turn supported by the high level of inflation and high interest rates in the U.S. economy during that period. As inflation abated and interest rates followed a similar course, policy-crediting rates also fell, and so-called "seven-pay" policies became "14-pay" to maintain the insurance. While the text within the illustrations warned buyers that things could change and "more or fewer premiums may be required" the numerical illustrations overwhelmed the written narrative, to the point that few buyers could understand why they were not a fair representation of the policy they purchased.

What CPAs Need to Know

While today's policy illustrations are required to reflect both guaranteed and nonguaranteed values, illustrations have also been bloated by well-intended regulation to 14 or more pages, containing unrelenting columns of numbers and inexplicable narrative. Indeed, a policy illustration does contain valuable information. But what must be examined and understood are the underlying assumptions, which are typically not disclosed (and in any case, can be changed virtually at will by the insurance company).

A UL or VUL policy illustration is based on five elements that presume to determine the value to the policy owner: the assumed face amount (or death benefit), the assumed premium, the number of premiums anticipated or proposed, the assumed crediting rate (or investment return) and the assumed "scale" of insurance charges that will be levied against the policy over the insured's life. (Note the frequent use of the term "assumed.")While the main characteristic of a UL or VUL policy illustration is its flexibility, this also means that virtually everything is assumed in the illustration. Only a minimum rate (typically, four percent) is guaranteed within a UL contract and within the guaranteed interest general account alternative of VUL contracts that offer this option. Also, the policy itself refers only to the guaranteed maximum policy charges that can be assessed in a UL or VUL policy. (The illustration dynamics of second-to-die forms of UL and VUL are basically the same, and will not be further distinguished in this article.)

If everything is based on assumptions, when external factors change, the policy values begin to deviate from the original illustration.

Nowhere does change affect a life insurance policy more than in VUL. These policies are considered registered products, which in turn require special licensing and regulation. Because all of the investment risk (and opportunity) is shifted to the policy owner, it is especially important that a prospective buyer appreciate that the policy illustration does not reflect the inevitable variability the underlying cash value funds will experience. Illustrations of VUL will calculate values (including "solving" for premiums) based on whatever assumed investment return the agent or client chooses (not to exceed an annual rate of 12% gross) and then use that rate as a constant projection factor over the lifetime of the insured.

This mismatch of reality and expectation is of greatest concern when the buyer's focus is to obtain the "best" deal. This is typically characterized as the lowest price for the needed life insurance. But, because the price of these types of policies will not be truly known until the death of the insured--and the historical "look back" of the stock market over many years--additional analysis must be conducted.

If, as an alternative to the assumption of constant investment returns, a VUL illustration were calculated on the basis of historic market returns, some very interesting realities come to light. The lowest level premium to sustain $1 million for the lifetime of a 60-year-old female in excellent health might be quoted as low as $13,000 a year, based on the assumption of a constant 12% gross rate of return. However, applying the broad market returns of the last 40 years in the calculation of policy sufficiency over the next 40 years indicates that the policy would have lapsed for lack of sufficient cash value by age 85, several years before the life expectancy of a large number of healthy 60-year-old females. Even more dramatically, when Monte Carlo Simulation is applied to determine a probability of success for the $13,000 premium against randomized historic returns, there is less than a 20% probability that the policy will sustain to age 100. (Age 100 is a typical target for sustaining a policy, especially with ever-lengthening life expectancies in the general population.)

Certainly, someone who is reasonably able and willing to handle the investment risk in a VUL policy should not expect 100% assurance that the policy will work with a minimal premium; at the same time, however, 20% is too low a chance. Probably somewhere between 60% and 80% would be most appropriate. And when that requirement is worked into the calculation of a sufficient premium, the premium has to be at least 30% more than the previously calculated minimum annual premium to reflect the desired probabilities of success. (In second-to-die policies, the premium generally needs to be at least 40% more than the calculated minimum annual premium.)

Meeting the Client's Needs

How should a practitioner proceed to make recommendations to a client? The first thing to do is not request a series of illustrations from a number of companies and then try to figure out which is the best deal. Rather, first determine the amount of insurance appropriate for the situation. (There are many useful tools available on the Internet and from insurance carriers themselves on needs determination.) Once the amount of insurance has been determined (and for which there is client agreement), the second task is to determine the type of life insurance. that will likely meet the client's needs. Short-term needs (such as securing short-term financing or backing a limited-term buy-sell agreement) are best served with term life insurance. Needs that are 15 years or longer (such as estate tax liquidity or replacing income in the event of premature death) should be addressed with some form of cash-value life insurance, to the extent that the client can accept the higher early premiums.

Fully funded whole life is a good choice for those clients with little tolerance for premium sufficiency surprises. (Whole life's guaranteed premiums, however, are quite high; while dividend can help reduce the premium expense, they are not guaranteed. Also, cash values are subject to the claims of creditors in the event of carrier insolvency.) At the other end of the spectrum are VUL policies, whose investment risks--and opportunities--are entirely the client's and whose funding may need to be significantly higher than anticipated from a "competitive" illustration. However, for those who are tolerant of the potential risks, VUL offers a unique upside potential that is fueled by exactly the type of overfunding needed to compensate for variability. (VUL cash-value accounts are not as susceptible to carrier failures--accounts are not included in the insurer's general assets.) UL policies are probably a good middle ground for those clients who want premium payment flexibility (something whole-life policies do not have), but who are reluctant to take equity risk with their life insurance policies. Caution: UL policy values are subject to the claims of carrier creditors in the event of insolvency and there is not as much "upside" potential with a UL versus a VUL. As always, the client's tolerance for risk will dictate the appropriate product selection.

Having determined the amount and type of insurance with which the client is likely to be comfortable, the final step is to review with the client the funding options and the risks associated with paying premiums less than that which an insurance company is willing to guarantee. It is perfectly appropriate to try and "fine tune" the premium payment to maximize benefits (or keep premiums as reasonable as possible), as long as the client understands the underlying risks associated with this strategy. Ultimately, the client's risk tolerance will be the best indicator of both the type of policy, as well as the appropriate way to fund such a policy.


Life insurance products have made a giant leap in technology and sophistication in the last 20 years, commensurate with a more complex economy and tax structure. Understanding and assessing life insurance proposals has always been a daunting task. Policy illustrations could be useful to understand how a particular policy works with a particular flow of premium and other assumptions about the future. But the reality is that the very nature of a numeric illustration compels clients to look to the illustration for a sense of what the future holds. Yet, what the illustration does not do (especially for UL or VUL) is reveal the extent to which the illustration is so dependent on assumptions that are unclear and sometimes even unidentified in the illustration. If CPAs will follow the process of determining how much and what kind of life insurance is appropriate for their client's "style," and how best to structure payments for the policy consistent with the client's tolerance for risk, they would be taking a giant step in the right direction of serving their clients' insurance needs.

Sarah Phelan, J.D.
Technical Manager
Jersey City, NJ
COPYRIGHT 2001 American Institute of CPA's
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Phelan, Sarah
Publication:The Tax Adviser
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2001
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