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by: Zeus Design


Universal Life Insurance

How a Universal Life Insurance Policy Works

Universal life (UL), also known as “flexible premium adjustable life”, combines features of term and whole life insurance to provide affordable death protection with considerable policy flexibility. The unique policy design of universal life insurance makes it easy to separate administrative costs, insurance charges and earnings which is very useful in determining how a specific policy is performing.

Universal Life Premium Payments and Deductions

The premium payments for universal life insurance policies are flexible and may be increased or decreased depending on changing needs. The policy owner has the option of paying the minimum premium necessary to cover policy costs and insurance charges or can pay a significantly higher premium to grow cash values for college planning or supplemental retirement income. As long as there is sufficient cash value in the policy, premiums may even be skipped. If the cash value is insufficient to cover policy costs and insurance charges, an increased premium must be paid. If the premium payment does not cover policy expenses and insurance charges, and there is no cash value available to meet these costs, the policy will lapse and the insurance coverage will no longer be effective.

When the premium is paid, sales loads and premium tax charges are initially deducted. The charges vary among insurance companies but are usually around 3-7%. These deductions are taken before the premium is placed in the accumulation fund.

Accumulation Fund and Monthly Charges

After the premium loads are deducted, all excess premiums go into the cash value account also referred to as the accumulation fund. This account builds cash value that grows tax deferred and is credited a current interest rate. Each month, from the accumulation fund, monthly charges are deducted for insurance costs, riders and any additional administrative expenses. The insurance costs are based on the net amount of insurance at risk which is the face amount (death benefit) of the policy less the policy’s cash value. Assuming a level death benefit of $100,000 and a cash value of $35,000, the net amount of insurance at risk would be $65,000. In this case, insurance costs would be based on annual renewable term (ART) insurance rates for the insured’s attained age and health class for $65,000 of insurance protection. ART rates increase annually as the age of the insured increases so cash values need to grow in the early policy years to offset higher insurance costs at the older ages.

With universal life policies, costs of insurance will vary among competing insurance companies. All companies offer a current schedule of insurance costs and a guaranteed schedule of insurance costs. The current costs of insurance are determined by the insurance company and are based on actuarial expertise, claims experience and investment acumen. Current insurance costs are not guaranteed and can be increased by the insurance company if economic circumstances deteriorate or if claims experience is underestimated. If insurance costs are increased, costs must be increased for all “like” policies in the same policy class. There can be no discrimination. Insurance costs can never exceed the guaranteed schedule of costs which is established in the insurance policy.

Interest Credits

The cash value account (accumulation fund) offers grows tax-deferred growth at a current interest rate. Each insurance company declares its own current interest rate. These interest crediting rates will fluctuate as market conditions change. Each month the cash value is credited with the current interest rate. This rate may change monthly but will never be below the guaranteed minimum interest crediting rate established in the life insurance policy. Historically, most companies offered guaranteed rates at 3-4% but many companies offering new policies have lowered the guaranteed minimum rates to 2% due to the sustained low interest rate environment.

Surrender Charges, Withdrawals and Policy Loans

Policy cash values may be access at any time subject to certain restrictions and the applicable policy surrender charges. Surrender charges are amounts deducted from the accumulated cash value upon surrender or cancellation of the insurance policy. Generally, all companies have a surrender period for the first few policy years. Depending on the insurance company the surrender period can extend out to a full 15 policy years. With most insurance companies, the surrender charge decreases each year by a certain percentage to eventually be zero at the end of the surrender period. The surrender charge is designed to discourage policy owners from canceling their policies early as well as to ensure that the insurance company recoups its costs of underwriting the policy.

Withdrawals from cash surrender value can be made at any time subject to specific policy limitations. Cash withdrawals can be accessed tax free up to the policy’s premium basis. The premium basis is the total amount of premiums paid into the policy to date. After the policy’s premium basis is reached, any withdrawals are subject to taxation. For this reason, after the policy’s basis has been withdrawn, tax free policy loans are generally used to access cash values. When a policy loan is made, funds are actually borrowed from the insurance company and a reasonable interest rate of 6-8% annually is charged. Loan interest will accrue until the loan is repaid. While the loan is accruing interest, the policy cash values are also getting credited with an interest rate based on the prevailing rate, currently 3-5% with most companies. Therefore, there is a net loan rate, which is the difference between the actual interest rate charged by the company less the current credited rate on the policy cash value. Currently net loan rates are somewhere between 2-4%. After the first five policy years and subject to certain conditions, many companies offer preferred loans which have a net loan rate of 0%.

As long as the policy retains enough cash value to pay insurance costs and fees, taxes can permanently be avoided using the withdrawal to basis then policy loan approach. If however, the policy lapses due to lack of cash to pay policy costs, all cash received from the policy in excess of the policy basis will be subject to income taxes. Policy loans do not have to be repaid as the loan amount with interest can be deducted from the policy face amount at death. For more information on taxes and life insurance see, “Life Insurance Tax Advantages".

New Guaranteed Universal Life Insurance Policies

The uncertainty of future insurance costs and interest rate fluctuations in traditional UL policies has made the lifetime guaranteed universal life polices very popular. These policies offer the attractive feature of guaranteed level rates for life. Like level term insurance, rates can be “locked in” or “dialed in” for a desired period of time. This “dial in” option is especially attractive to individuals at older ages that may want guarantees longer than what are available with level term insurance policies. Lifetime guaranteed universal life policies are mainly purchased for the death benefit guarantee so cash values are usually a secondary concern. If fact, most people seeking a guaranteed UL want very little cash value growth as this keeps the premiums lower. Lifetime guaranteed universal life insurance is also referred to as “level term insurance to age 100”.

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