How to buy life insurance you'll want to keep

Not everything in life works out, including, sometimes, life insurance policies. If you stop paying premiums on your life insurance, your policy lapses — meaning coverage ends. If you stop paying for a term life insurance policy and exceed the insurer's grace period (possibly 30 days), your policy lapses. Make sure that's a consequence you intend: You're not insured after the grace period and can't "reactivate" the same life insurance policy.

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If you stop paying on a whole life policy, you may have more leeway. If you have accumulated cash value within the policy, your insurer will likely draw down the cash value account to cover premiums.

According to the 2007 "U.S. Individual Life Insurance Persistency Update" by LIMRA International and the Society of Actuaries (SOA), the overall annual lapse rate is 3.5 percent for whole life policies, 7 percent for term life, 4.6 percent for universal life (UL) and 5.7 percent for variable universal life (VUL).

Some folks pay for decades and decades on their life insurance policies and then throw in the towel and lapse their policies. What happened?

There are countless reasons someone might decide to lapse a policy.

There are countless reasons someone might decide to lapse a life insurance policy. Most have to do with no longer having the discretionary income to continue paying premiums. John Dressner, Senior Vice President of LIFE Foundation, a nonprofit consumer-education organization, says, "Lapses are usually not for lack of desire for coverage but because of financial conflicts."

Life insurance experts have seen people lapse life insurance policies when a job loss, divorce, large medical expense or business loss means budgets must tighten. Or they buy a new television rather than pay their life insurance premiums. (True story.)

Other times, policyholders are replacing their current policy with a new one.

Sometimes the decision to lapse is more emotional: The benefits seem too far off in the future.

And sometimes policyholders lose contact with the agent who originally sold them the life insurance policy, so they feel nobody is available to address their questions about lapsing it.

Dressner points out that "someone bought it for a reason, because they wanted the protection." If you're thinking of lapsing a current life insurance policy, think carefully about whether you'd want coverage in the future, when buying a new policy will be more expensive due to your age and possible health problems.

While there are no studies on the exact reasons people have lapsed their policies, we can learn from past life insurance buyers who jumped ship. Here are some tips for life insurance shopping based on lapses by other buyers.

Choose a guaranteed level premium for the entire period you need coverage.

If you're looking at term life insurance, consider buying a policy with guaranteed level premiums for the entire period you want to be insured, rather than face an increase after your guaranteed-premium period ends. The LIMRA/SOA study shows that lapse rates spike after the guaranteed-level premium periods. Perhaps policyholders were satisfied paying the level premiums but weren't willing to continue at a higher price.

Buy a policy with guaranteed level premiums for the entire period you want to be insured.

Consider this: Among buyers of 10-year level term, 40 percent dropped their policies when the guaranteed-premium period ended, and 30 percent of holders of 15-year level term stopped paying when the premiums went up.

Further, those who pay "substandard" rates (issued due to ill health) abandon their policies in larger numbers after initial rate-guarantee periods, according to LIMRA and SOA.

Buy enough coverage for your needs.

Are you buying a life insurance policy with a small face amount? Think carefully about whether that policy is sufficient coverage for you, because history shows that almost half of people with whole life policies of $5,000 or under abandon them within the first year (over 45 percent do, according to the LIMRA/SOA study). People with larger whole life policies are far more likely to hold on to them.

This trend extends to other policy types. For example, buyers of annual renewable term policies under $200,000 lapse them more in the first five years than buyers of larger policies. (After year five the gap closes.)

The difference in policy size is quite noticeable with UL, where about 33 percent of those with policies under $15,000 lapse their policies in each of the first three years, as opposed to about 5 to 10 percent of those with larger face amounts.

If you're buying whole life, commit long-term.

Don't throw away your money by paying into a whole life policy for one to five years, only to abandon it.

The highest lapse rates for whole life policies are in the first five years. After that, lapse rates settle down at between 3 to 5 percent for whole life policies, according to LIMRA and SOA. Don't throw away your money by paying into a whole life policy for one to five years, only to abandon it.

Make sure you understand what you are buying.

This is true especially if you are looking at universal life and variable universal life, which can have many "moving parts" that affect your premiums due and death benefit.

Match your coverage to your life stage.

If you're under age 30 and buying a life insurance policy, consider carefully whether you're committed to paying that premium bill. Others like you, age 20 to 29, abandon their policies in higher numbers than older buyers, according to LIMRA and SOA.

Find the easiest way to pay.

Consider paying your premium bill through electronic funds transfer from your bank account. Policyholders who pay that way are more likely to keep their policies, perhaps because they never have to sit down and write a check.

Add a "disability waiver of premium" rider to your life insurance policy.

Life insurance experts see many policies lapse due to a disability that puts the policyholder out of work. A disability waiver of premium rider will cover your premium payments in this case.

Shop for a good rate from the start.

If you will be issued a policy with a smoking or "substandard" rate, make sure you can keep up with premium payments. People in those rate classes lapse their policies more often in the first five years. For example, about 18 percent of smokers with whole life policies lapse them in the first year as opposed to 11 percent of nonsmokers, according to LIMRA and SOA.

No matter what rate class you fall into, knowing that you secured a competitive life insurance price will make paying your premium bill easier.

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