Life insurance for high-risk applicants

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When you apply for a life insurance policy, the insurance company looks at factors like your age, gender, medical history and lifestyle to determine your eligibility and calculate your premium. Individuals with no major health issues usually have no trouble getting a policy. However, some people have risk factors that make them more of a risk for the insurance companies. These people, referred to as high-risk applicants, still have life insurance options, but they should know what those options are.

What is a high-risk life insurance applicant?

“A high-risk life insurance applicant is someone who has pre-existing health concerns,” says Jake Irving, owner of Willamette Life. “Every insurance company sets its own definition of high-risk (underwriting) standards. Some companies look back into an applicant’s medical history only two years, and others take a much more broad view.”

Unlike home or auto insurance, life insurance quotes are based on the applicant’s life expectancy. When you apply for coverage, your insurance company will want to know if you have a higher statistical probability of dying prematurely.

As of 2018, the average life expectancy in the United States is 78.7 years old. More specifically, the average lifespan for males is 76.2 years old, and for females, is 81.2 years old. This is why seniors pay more for life insurance than young people.

To determine your underwriting risks, life insurance companies typically require applicants to complete a medical exam that measures key health markers, like height and weight, blood pressure, nicotine usage, alcohol consumption, prescriptions, family history and current medical conditions.

How do you know if you are high risk?

Before you apply for life insurance, it is important to determine whether you fall into the high-risk category so you can plan your next steps. “If you are considered to be high risk, you could be denied coverage, have to pay higher premiums, and/or have a waiting period before you are fully covered,” adds Irving. The two biggest factors that determine your eligibility for life insurance are your medical risks and your lifestyle.

Medical risk

Life insurance companies want to know about your personal medical history, as well as your family history of illness that could make you a high-risk applicant. If you have any of the following conditions, you are likely considered high-risk:

  • Cancer: Having been diagnosed with cancer of any type will likely put you in the high-risk category for life insurance. To purchase a policy, most insurance companies will require you to be cancer-free for a certain number of years.
  • Heart attack: If you have had a heart attack in the past or have been diagnosed with heart disease, it will impact your ability to get life insurance. People who have had one heart attack often have another, which poses additional risk for the insurance company.
  • Stroke: Strokes can affect your ability to get life insurance. Most life insurance companies will not approve a traditional policy if you have had a stroke within the last year, or you had a stroke that led to other health issues, like paralysis.
  • Dementia: Because there is no cure for cognitive disorders, people with dementia have to purchase high-risk life insurance. On average, a person with Alzheimer’s lives four to eight years after diagnosis, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
  • HIV/AIDS: People who have been diagnosed with HIV or AIDS are considered high-risk, even if their disorder is well-managed. Some studies show that people living with HIV/AIDS have a shorter life expectancy than the average person.


The other major factor that determines your life insurance risk is your lifestyle. Even if you have no medical issues or family history of illness, you could still be considered high-risk based on things like your occupation, your habits and the types of hobbies you enjoy:

  • Occupation: Life insurance companies consider your occupation to determine the amount of risk you face on a daily basis. Some examples of high-risk jobs are underground miners, steelworkers, construction workers and commercial fishers.
  • Hobbies: If you consider yourself to be a thrill-seeker, you are most likely in the high-risk category. Insurance companies want to know if you participate in potentially dangerous hobbies like scuba diving, mountaineering, skydiving and motorcycle racing.
  • Nicotine use: Smoking has a number of health risks, and it can lead to other medical issues like certain types of cancer and COPD. If you smoke cigarettes, vape or use chewing tobacco, life insurance companies will consider you to be high-risk.
  • Alcohol consumption: If you drink more alcohol than the recommended serving for males and females, life insurance companies will likely consider you to be high-risk. Overconsumption of alcohol can trigger other health complications, and increase the risk of accidents.

How do high-risk life insurance rates work?

To calculate rates, the largest life insurance companies use a table rating system. “With table ratings, the applicant receives a letter (A–P) or a number (1–16) indicating the percentage increase over the regular premium level,” says Linda Chavez, founder of Seniors Life Insurance Finder.

“The standard premium is increased by 25% for each letter or number down the table. For example, if the standard premium is $100, a table rating of B will result in a premium of $150, which is 50% higher than the standard rate. If you have a rating of 7, you can pay 175 percent more than the regular rate, or $275 more,” adds Chavez.

Although many high-risk life insurance carriers use a table rating system, every insurance provider assesses applicant risk in their own unique way. According to Chavez, “One insurer may assign a table rating to someone with high cholesterol, while another may give the same individual regular life insurance rates. This may be due to the fact that the second provider specializes in policies for people with high cholesterol.”

Can you save money on life insurance if you are high-risk?

If you fall into the high-risk category, it is still possible to save money on your life insurance policy. Because life insurance premiums are based largely upon your medical history, improving your overall health is a great place to start.

For example, if you are considered high-risk because you smoke and are overweight, work with your doctor to lose weight and quit smoking. If you are taking medication to manage HIV/AIDS or another health condition, keep taking your prescriptions to avoid other complications. If you are an avid scuba diver, consider finding a less risky hobby you enjoy, like surfing.

Before you buy coverage, do not forget to shop around. “Since each company has different standards to qualify, some companies are more lenient for specific conditions than others,” says Irving. The cost of life insurance is largely dependent on the provider you choose.

“For example, some companies are more diabetic-friendly than others. The best way to find the lowest rates will either be to shop around on your own or have an agent help you compare plans that best meet your needs,” Irving adds. If you believe you are paying too much for life insurance, you always have the option to switch carriers.

Frequently asked questions

What is the best life insurance company?

The best life insurance company is different for everyone. It depends on factors like your age, overall health, the type of policy you want and the amount of coverage you need. You can find the best life insurance company for you by shopping around and comparing providers using your personal criteria.

How much life insurance do I need?

The amount of life insurance you need should be based on your income and your family’s financial needs. You can use a life insurance coverage calculator to help figure out how much coverage is best for your situation.

Written by
Elizabeth Rivelli
Insurance Contributor
Elizabeth has two years of experience writing for insurance domains such as, The Simple Dollar, and NextAdvisor, among others. In addition to auto insurance, Elizabeth regularly writes about home insurance, renters insurance and life insurance. She also covers industry trends and general insurance education.
Edited by
Loans Editor